Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”

December 17, 2007


I shouldn’t be able to read most of the books on my shelf. I never took a single classical history class and I cheated through most of Economics 001. Still, the loci of my library are Greek History and Applied Economics. And though they often are beyond me educationally, I’m able to comprehend them because of some equalizing tricks. Reading to lead or learn requires that you treat your brain like the muscle that it is–lifting the subjects with the most tension and weight. For me, that means pushing ahead into subjects you’re not familiar with and wresting with them until you can–shying away from the “easy read.”

This is how I break down a new book:

Before the First Page
Break out of the School Mindset

Almost everything you learn in the classroom is tainted by the fact that ultimately teachers have to test you on it. Tests often have very little to do with proving that you know or care about the material but more about proving that you spent the time reading it. The easiest way to do this is picking obscure things from the text and quizzing you on them: “Name this passage” “What were the main characters in Chapter 4?” So forget that–you’re reading for you. Even when you’re in school, you should be reading for yourself and not for the teacher. The worst thing that can happen is they knock you down a little bit on a grade that means very little.

When you read History of the Peloponnesian War, the countries involved in the conflict between Corinth and Corcyra is not really worth remembering. (Proof: I had to go look up the names on Wikipedia, all I remember was that they both started with a C. )What you should latch onto is that as the two fought for allied support from Athens, one took the haughty “you owe us a favor” route and the other alluded to all the benefits that would come from aiding them. Guess who got the support?

From Seneca:

“We haven’t time to spare to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm or somewhere outside the world we know–when every day we’re running into our own storms, spiritual storms, and driven by vice into all the troubles that Ulysses ever knew.”

He rightly points out that Homer was wise before he recited or sat down to write his own works–so what do you really gain by analyzing the minutia of it? The work is an expression of the message, not the message itself. So forget everything but that message and how to apply it to your life. Dates, names, pronunciations–they only matter in how they provide context for the lesson at hand. They carry little value otherwise.

Ruin the Ending

I almost always go straight to Wikipedia and ruin the ending. Who cares? Your aim as a reader is to understand WHY something happened, the what is secondary. In the case of HOTPW, without reading the entry you might have passed over the glorious anecdote that Thucydides missed a large part of the war because he caught the Plague and that he was largely delegated to writing about the battles because his military incompetence led to an early defeat.

You ought to ruin the ending–or find out the basic assertions of the book–because it frees you up to focus on your two most important tasks: 1) What does it mean? 2) Do you agree with it? The first 50 pages of the book shouldn’t be a discovery process for you; you shouldn’t be wasting your time figuring out what the author is trying to say. Instead, your energy needs to be spent on figuring out if he’s right and how you can benefit from it. Plus if you already know what happens, you can identify all the foreshadowing and the clues the first read through.

Read the Reviews (Amazon)

Find out from the people who have already read it what they felt was important. From the reviews you can deduce the culture significance of the work–and from what it meant to others, at least grasp a bearing of what it could mean to you. Also by being warned of the major themes you can anticipate them coming and then actually appreciate them as they unfold. Which again frees you up much in the same way that ruining the ending does. And frankly, if you agree with their assessment of the work, go ahead and steal it once you’ve finished. They didn’t copyright it–this isn’t school, this is life.

The Book Itself
Read the Intro

I know, I know. It infuriates me too that a 200 page book has a 80 page translator’s introduction, but they are helpful. Every time I have skipped through it, I’ve had to go back and start over. Read the intro. It often has a ton of interesting stuff about who the work ended up influencing, and other tidbits that often stick with you longer than the work itself.

Look It Up

If you’re reading to lead, you’re going to come across concepts or words you’re not familiar with. Don’t pretend like you understand, look it up. I like to use Definr or I use my Blackberry to look stuff up on Wikipedia. If you’re away from a computer and need the definition of a word, type “Define: ______” and text it to 46645 (Googl) and you’ll get one back from Google. With Military History, a sense of the battlefield is often necessary. Wikipedia is a great place to grab maps and to help understand the terrain. That being said, don’t get bogged down with the names of the cities or the spelling of names, you’re looking to grasp the meta-lesson–the conclusion.

Post It Highlighters

These will change how you read. On the right side of the page, I tag the pages I have highlighted important passages on. On the top of the page, I mark if there is a concept I need to research or if there is a book the author suggests I read as a supplement. Don’t be afraid to tear the book up with tags–tape is cheap but the time it will take you to otherwise flip back through the book to track something down is not.

Flip Through It Again

Before you close the book, go back through and reread all the passages you’ve marked. This puts them back into your memory and let’s you walk away knowing the crucial hits of the author’s message. With these flagpoles you will be able to go back through and remember the details if necessary, like knowing the chord structure of a song and working through the rest as it comes.

After You Finish
Type Out the Important Quotes and Passages

In Old School, Tobias Wolff talks about how he used to retype the works of classic authors when he felt uninspired just to feel what it was like to have that profoundness flow out of his finger tips. That is why I have the Book Quotes and Passages section. I’ve been compiling for almost 4 years now and have nearly 15,000 words typed. And I still have boxes left to go through. Not only will it inspire you, but it will help you remember them.

Read One Book from Every Bibliography

This is a little rule I try to stick with. In every book I read, I try to find my next one in its footnotes or bibliography. This is how you build a knowledge base in a subject–it’s how you trace a subject back to its core. Just keep a running list through Amazon’s Wish List service (here is mine). Last month I read a book on Evolutionary Psychology and discovered that I’d read almost 80% of its sources because I’d been pulled down the rabbit hole of a predecessor.

Connect, Apply, Use

When you make connections–that the cultural reactions after WWI (largely extroverted and flamboyant) and WWII (introverted, uptight and overly moral) appear to be opposite takes on the same disillusionment–you can see things for what they are. And then better understand the cyclical nature of history and human nature. Make the connection–that every major military pretext for war was claimed by (some) historians to be governmentally orchestrated (sinking of the Maine, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, 9/11)–and appreciate how our responses to events rarely ever contain perspective or a sense of rational continuity. Ex: Is Cicero’s advice on speaking similar to the mechanics of good writing?

Begin to apply the mindset of the author to your daily life–even if you don’t agree with it. How would an evolutionary psychologist consider this situation? If people are economically self-interested, how can I explain this action? If Von Clausewitz said that we love Greek history because it’s the easiest to manipulate, should I trust this anecdote? Ex: I know Cicero wanted to make you a better speaker, but if he wanted you to write better, what would he say?

Use. You highlight the passages for a reason. Why type the quotes if you aren’t going to memorize them? Drop them in conversation. Allude to them in papers, in emails, in letters and in your daily life. How else do you expect to absorb them? Don’t be a douche and drop them where they aren’t relevant, but use the wisdom to make yourself a better person.Ex: Write, even if it’s just for yourself, even if you’re thinking aloud, what Cicero can teach you about writing.

I give you Seneca again:

“My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”


Of course, none of this is easy. People always ask me if the books I carry around are for school because they’re full of notes, flags and folded pages–why would anyone work so hard on something they were doing on their own? Because I enjoy it, because it’s the only thing that separates me from ignorance. These are the techniques have allowed me to leap years ahead of my peers. It’s how you strike out on your own and build strength instead of letting some personal trainer dictate what you can and can’t be lifting.

So try it: Do your research, read diligently without getting bogged down in details, and then work to connect, apply and use. And I think you’ll find that you’re able to read above your supposed “level” even outside the classroom setting.

You can check out my Reading List for a place to start.

**Note: My list isn’t conclusive, it’s just my system. If there are any steps I am missing, feel free to post what you use.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

100 responses to Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”

  1. Awesome. I have been looking for something like this for a while.

    I am assuming you underline stuff and write in books a lot. I have never really understood what people write in books to help them, any tips?

    • As an ex-student, and ongoing learner I can report that writing in books mainly consists of drawing parallels with other ideas in the book, from other related texts-it is a way of creating idea and concept links to assist the the process of comprehension, what marketers call ‘Ah Hah’ moments-these often do not make a lot of sense to others because personal shorthand is often used-but not always. Writing in margins can be be brilliant, but is often mundane; like a lot of things it depends on the writer!

  2. This is an amazing article. I think the first part points out one of the greatest flaws in the U.S. outcome-based educational system, particularly high school and junior high. Students are taught to study just for the sake of taking a stupid test, and then forget the material directly afterward. Even worse, subjects and classes are broken up into semesters or quarters in such a way to where the material doesn’t really connect on any meaningful level.

    Aside from private school (not all, but some) education that focuses more on individualistic and disciplined learning, homeschooling seems to do a great job in motivating students to do the actions listed above. There’s a reason why home schooled students routinely score higher on national tests and have a higher rate of acceptance relative to their numbers than public school kids, into Ivy League universities–they are motivated to learn, not just swallow facts and then spit them back out.

    Homeschooling gave me the flexibility to skip the seventh grade, and allowed my younger brother to graduate high school at 16 instead of the standard 18.

    There’s a little used bookstore in the city I like to visit. I’m going to start buying books there (or on Amazon) and use your steps.

  3. Thank you.

    I’ve been consuming books since I knew the alphabet, but after reading this, immediately books spring to mind where I could have started my trail of studies.

    Thank you sir, of making me, in short: more effective.


  4. Great article, but I disagree with your point here:

    “Use. You highlight the passages for a reason. Why type the quotes if you aren’t going to memorize them? Drop them in conversation. Allude to them in papers, in emails, in letters and in your daily life.”

    This is akin to memorizing the cities involved in the Peloponnesian War; memorizing quotes word-for-word, or even remembering who they are attributed to, is not as important as understanding the important ideas presented (and if you’re highlighting and retyping the quotes, I assume you’ve found them to be important). Naturally putting the quote into its context lets you explore it further, but if you’ve already done this, what’s the harm in paraphasing or failing to cite the quote? (Unless you’re trying to pass off others’ quotes as your own, that just makes you a douchebag.)

    My problem with books has more to do with dense language, where I have to consider the particular meaning of every convoluted word in a sentence to understand what is being said. I’ll try your method on some of the books I’ve given up on; I’m excited to see if it helps.

  5. In regards to Amazon, I pay special attention to the negative reviews. Often, they point out some good things to ponder as I read the book, and best of all, it keeps me skeptical so I don’t just take the author’s word for it uncritically.


  6. This is kind of a stupid question but do you use this system for only non-fiction books or fiction books as well?

    I know it can be assumed since most of your book quotes come from fiction books that you obviously use that system when reading fiction books. However I was wondering how the “ruin the ending” point you made would fit in with fiction books.

  7. I try and do it with ALL books.

    • That might be slightly harder with scientific content though 😉

      Although the difference will mostly be in reading the books in the right order and wikipedia will hardly ever help you.

      My take on the subject is that no book is above my level, at least in the category you cited.

      I can safely say many physics books are above my level, and I would have to read another book before trying those.

      It’s time I go get my brother’s university physics and give it a try.

      I find your list interesting, but I believe just training your memory could free you from post-it-ing around –

      I used to remember everything (even specific sentences) of the Silmarillion after having read it only once (and fast at that) when I was about 11.

      I believe both you and I -and anyone really- can get that kind of memory (again) if we train for it (I have to say I’m getting better memory every day since I quit weed).

  8. Considering how many books you read, do you usually take them on one at a time (finishing one before you start another) or do you work through multiple books at the same time? If it’s the latter case, is there any specific technique you use to reading multiple books during the same time period?

  9. Thanks, I’ll be employing these tactics with future books.

    Have you read “The Disposable Male” by Michael Gilbert? It’s a relatively recent Ev Psych book. When I read the first few pages, I had to buy it. Looks promising.

    But how do you read so many books? This post deals with only digesting them.

    Also, does Tucker have any reading advice? Both of you seem to read more than is humanly possible.

    Keep up the good posts. This is one of my impulsive sites.

  10. If something is important to you, you’ll make it happen. I just make time.

  11. Awesome posting. I definitely agree with typing out the important passages and quotes that mean the most to you. For me personally, its one thing to read something, but another to really recap what you got and type it yourself or in your own words. I am all about looking and researching more besides reading the book too.

  12. I am a very fast reader and when dealing with very dense or older works, I found nothing worked so well as just slowing down. I found slowing down nearly impossible until I started reading the works out loud (as if to someone else). This helped me get through some very old, very dense texts and understand them better.

    This is particularly fun if it’s poetry.

  13. Thanks for posting about the google text service. It’s going to help me immensely with my reading when i’m not near a computer to find out a definition.

  14. The Google Text thing also works for directions, phone numbers and pretty obvious questions like “Who is the President of Iran?”

  15. Great stuffs. I have been trying to digest more books but always got stuck in the middle of a sentence. I guess I will benefit a lot from these reading guidelines. Thanks!

  16. I’m not as rigorous about it as you are, but I’ve been doing this since childhood. Often as a kid, I was singled out for reading books and magazines I “shouldn’t be reading.”

    For instance, in first grade my teacher called a parent-teacher conference after I was caught reading a National Geographic magazine in class. She felt that I “shouldn’t be reading that,” meaning, of course, that I was incapable of it.

    However, I could read it just fine and even if I didn’t understand every word, I was still able to learn far more than if I’d stuck with the kiddie books that they wanted me to read.

    Even though I did it unknowingly, reading above my level did far more to educate me than any other single factor, by far.

  17. Great article. Good research.. enjoyed reading. It’s useful. Goodluck 🙂

  18. I can relate totally with the way you read! Indeed, it has enabled me to recall the content of the book better than other system. however, i found it still takes quite a long time to finish one book. Any advice on speed reading?

  19. As a teacher I’m always appalled and what we/I do to people by allowing them to live in school mode. I had a hell of a time reading with ADD and I think the above tips are fantastic. Still, I think the first thing when sitting down with a book is not just getting out of school mode but getting “in touch” with why you’re reading and why.

    At what level do you want to engage at that moment, then adjust your expectations as you begin to understand what the text has to offer you. Forcing stuff really makes a mess in my experience. I’m a good reader now, but I only succeed when I’m realistic about what I want and what energy level my mood allows me to succeed at.

    A lifetime of expectations from classrooms to coffee houses is a lot of baggage to carry into chillin with a book. In my opinion, it should be a conversation between you and someone else’s thoughts on paper. Its sort of like taking muddy boots off before walking into the house. If you don’t do it things get messy.

  20. lovely, that’s why we filter stories 🙂

    pictorial edition @

  21. Thank you for some useful hints. Anyway, this reads a bit like a “philistine guide” for reading books.

    If you don’t enjoy fiction or history books and are not able or willing to get into it or to follow the author on his route to his message, then you should just stick to a summary of the book that’s written by somebody else and leave the book alone. Also, your judgements what’s worth remembering and what’s not seems to be a bit self-absorbed. Why should the anecdote and the moral be more important then the nations that were in war? Why is the take home-message more important than the development of a story, the narration itself, the beauty fiction can have. This really depends on what you’re reading for. Do you need to read something to write about about it in a class or just for your own pleasure? If the latter is the case, then I don’t understand why one should like to fool himself. There a thousands of books that are on your level, no matter where you are. There is no need to pretend to yourself that you did understand a book, if you didn’t actually, because already the language and the setting gave you a hard time.

    In principle there’s nothing wrong with your attitude but if you post this as a how-to-guide, I think these things should be mentioned.



  22. Great method! And I swear by the rule (tip) “Read One Book from Every Bibliography”. As far as nonfiction is considered, I usually start out with a more recent writing on a subject, which has the benefit of in-time and applicability. Then I would go back to one of the old and fundamental books listed in its bibliography. In that way, I would expect to have an almost comprehensive view of the subject.

  23. “Jedes Buch war wie eine kleine Sprosse, über die ich vom Tier zum Menschen aufstieg.” — Maxim Gorki

    Means in English: “Each book was like a little sprung I climed up from animal to man.”

    How true!

  24. for all of you who really love books out there i have found this great new site so enjoy!

  25. Do you have any advice for poor college kids like myself that primarily deal with library books rather than ones we own?

    • The library is full of books. Train your memory and you won’t need postits.

    • Learn how to understand-this is a major flaw in our education system; we emphasize memory learning, expedient superficial skating on the surface of books-you need to cultivate a genuine love of understanding what the writing is saying to you-love of learning is what Philosophy means-this pragmatic, rationalist perspective we treasure so much has engendered a new era of barbarism.

  26. I find your article to be immensely resourceful. I’ve printed it out and referenced it on numerous occasions. I’m all for your tenet, pursuing books way above your level, otherwise how can one improve their analytical and critical thinking skills? I’m reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics right now, and the sheer complexity and subtlety is just mind-boggling.

  27. I admit, Ryan, I’m intrigued by how you spend a typical weekday. What is your standard work schedule? When do you sneak-in time to read? And, yes, even: what does your desk look like? You seem to be a highly productive person, so I wonder what unique self-efficiency hacks you might use throughout the day. A future blog post, perhaps?

    • Honestly, Taleb explained my view of “efficiency hacks” better than I ever could: “Preoccupation with productivity is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust and heroic life.”

      My weekday is working as much as I can on all the projects I love working on. Getting paid for some, and not for others. You know?

  28. Rayn,

    Have you had any experience with eReaders? I am, as you, a book eater, but i have A LOT, and i like the idea of storing them in a better way (digital).

    But im afraid that NOT FEELING the book itself in my hands will be awkward.

    Let me know.

    • I have an iPad but they aren’t good for reading anything important on. It might store the books better, but it makes it too hard to store notes, remember important pages and get a “feel” for the work.

      • In reply (or followup) to Ryan’s comment on the problems with reading anything important on an E-reader: “It might store the books better, but it makes it too hard to store notes, remember important pages and get a “feel” for the work.”

        That is an opportunity! I’m trying to create some tools (and habits) to help with that. I try to do a lot of reading online (now–for a long time I couldn’t stand to read online).

        I keep a free format database into which I cut and paste snippets of what I read along with my comments.

        I’ve made a transition to Linux. Before that I used askSam and ZyIndex to keep those notes. Now I’d like to create something in Linux to do the same. (Well, actually, I have some things cobbled together that work reasonably well for me–I keep notes in very large files a Wiki-like markup language and then use features from various editors and other programs (recoll) to search the notes)–it would probably take some dedication for somebody else to learn to use my system.

        I keep intending to dress it up, both for myself and for others…

  29. I realy needs to know how to learn when i read

  30. Gordon Richter July 14, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Thank you for sharing this! Since my introduction to Zeno’s porch due to my reading of your “Shortness of Life” post, I have jumped down the Stoic rabbit hole at a time when I really needed it. Constantly seeking out writers of undeniable genius and meditating on the points that I find most useful. I feel so strongly on your point that this does separate us from ignorance. This powerful and useful knowledge that’s ignored by the masses and cherished by few. Constantly preparing us for what fortune has in store for us.


    old link is broken.

    admittedly the new one isn’t too hard to find, but still thought I’d help.

    • Corinth and Corcyra are discardable details, sure. And trying to retain their spelling and pronunciation indeed may cause you to miss more valuable insights if reading the text is like juggling a bunch of balls. But if you readily discard the nouns and focus on the spirit then you’ll never raise your level. I suspect you don’t really discard the names of places like you say you do, you just understand some details are more relevant than others.

      “WWI (largely extroverted and flamboyant) and WWII (introverted, uptight and overly moral)”
      These are all specific details, and if we were to sacrifice them one by one you would gradually lose meaning, right? What if we had just read Ryan Holiday’s read-to-lead post? We might discard the names WWI and WWII as the kind of concrete details which distract from the conclusion and can be looked up later on Wikipedia. We would then walk around with a vague notion that wars, or big events in history, have different, sometimes paradoxical responses in places like America. And if we were particularly headstrong we might find ourselves in discussions about foreign policy with this vague notion that we’re convinced is true, but unable to convince anyone else with.

      Of course, Mr. Holiday, you wouldn’t discard those names, just the names of irrelevant details, like Corinth and Corcyra. I think that the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant details is exactly what a person’s reading “level” is, thereby making this aspect of the post a tautology–don’t bother with the irrelevant stuff, try to get to the author’s message. No shit.

      If you know a shortcut to approach texts where the reader isn’t able to differentiate between what’s relevant and irrelevant then you will get published in peer-reviewed educational journals. Otherwise, the process is a relatively slow process of gradually learning vocabulary and gaining experience in witnessing how authors structure and relate ideas.

      When confronted by a challenging text it’s a reasonable strategy to take everything in, though it takes effort. Every reader is going to get picture of the idea in the authors head, and how accurate that picture is depends on the reader’s “level.” What’s the threshold for a book being at your level? That you get 99% of its ideas? 90%? 50%? Ultimately, fidelity varies as a function of how many words (which describe and relate ideas) you bring to the table when you start reading and how much effort you devote to decoding the ones you don’t understand. This post has several good suggestions for the latter half of the equation: reading what other people have written, taking notes, trying to convey the ideas in the outside world. But suggesting readers discard details demonstrates a poor understanding for how we decide what’s relevant. If you know what you can discard you’re probably not reading a book above your “level.”

  32. What a great post. Thanks for the insight. I’m ready to dive into some selections I’d bought but just hadn’t had the spirit to tackle. You’ve provided a system for doing so.

  33. “Use. You highlight the passages for a reason. Why type the quotes if you aren’t going to memorize them? Drop them in conversation”

    You do this a lot on your posts. Found you through Reddit while you were doing an AMA about your book, you have a lot of interesting and inspirational ideas going on.

    Keep up the good work

  34. I only recently came across this article of yours as I was reading it on Thought Catalog. Your tactics for building a strong and knowledgable mind is one I will not forget and try my very best to implement in life. As much as I wish I read this back in 2007, I’m glad to have stumbled upon it now. It’s never too late to start! 😀 Thank you once again for sharing.

  35. These are genuinely wonderful ideas in concerning blogging.
    You have touched some nice points here. Any way keep up wrinting.

  36. Ryan,
    Excellent way of reading books.


  37. One of our users at just mentioned he uses our site to manage all of his Kindle notes after reading this article. Just read this and it makes so much sense. Thanks for the great piece.

  38. This is awesome. I’d been wondering what I was doing for the past 5 months. My reading list is one driven by pure curiosity and while I’m reading I find myself making notes and highlights and I never knew the exact reason why. Sure I might have told myself “it’s to remember”, but I finally made the connection.

    Not too sure if it’s Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, but there’s a passage where they suggest to read, and then write down what you’ve read/learned so that you properly “digest” the material. Horrible paraphrase.

    But just wanted to thank you for providing the blog post that helped me make that connection. Going to apply some of your strategies.

  39. I’m a Chinese junior student, thank your for your reading tips ,i ‘m really gonna give it a try

  40. Great post Ryan. It is awesome that you push to better yourself and acquire more knowledge. I take it you saw the Pew Research poll that came out recently that said 24% of Americans do not read a single book (kindle or physical) of any kind in a year? Pretty sad stuff.

    I am going to start reading some of the books on your reading list that I have not before. I am currently reading Mastery right now, great book! I need to check out your book and eBook as well.

  41. Do you ever read on a kindle or tablet? I know we can highlight, take notes, and define words just the same with an eBook but it still feels different. I’m just wondering what your opinion on eBooks is. Do you ever read eBooks or are you wholeheartedly a physical-paper-book reader?

  42. Hey Ryan,
    seems like the Link to your ReadingList is broken.
    Good article nonetheless


  43. People often trot out the saw about knowledge for doing’s sake over learnings’s sake. This is what that looks like. We follow a similar process in our research and following the bread crumbs in bibliographies is huge. Only by reading deep in a category can you get your own perspective rather than just borrowing smart viewpoints from selected thinkers. Todd Sattersten wrote a excellent essay on how to read business books which is a similarly excellent guide for mining the best from a broad but generally shallower set of literature. That said, great business books can serve to curate deeper reading like you describe here. I’m late to this blog but will be sharing it with our research team. Thanks for sharing your roadmap.

  44. just thought I owuld let you know the link is broken.

  45. Awesome post. I’ve been doing these things for years and got called crazy by some friends that also like to read. But I don’t just like to read, I have this obsession and need to turn the book upside down until it becomes part of me. And I also like to know the end of movies as well. Thank you, Ryan!

  46. My biggest question is whether or not learning about this is worth my time. I sometimes think that my time is worth more thinking if something is worth doing than it actually is worth doing

  47. So the question is how to overcome my aversion to marking up a book. I have tried many times with highlighter in hand only to fall victim to the feeling that it is a sin to write in a perfectly good book. Old school thinking I suppose, but I do love the ideas presented here on how to read to lead. Someone needs to invent a highlighter that writes by itself – I just tell it where to go! Thanks Ryan!

  48. Hey Ryan,

    Excellent article.

    However how does the above methods you describe work for technical books?

  49. Matthew Pasquali November 14, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks Ryan, The Obstacle is the Way and by extension Meditations and stoic philosophy came along and improved my life dramatically over the past few months. The perspectives of stoic philosophy help me clear my mind and refocus my day when things have gone awry.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Retaining Reading « finding foerster - January 12, 2011

    […] Usually, the less note taking I make, the less I enjoyed a book.  Ryan Holiday has a great reading strategy, which you can use to retain ideas and articulate them […]

  2. Reading Plan Update « Nick Altman's Blog - April 5, 2011

    […] taking the most comprehensive notes I have taken on any books in my life. I am using the “read to lead” mentality and so far it is working out great but the major side effect is what I gain in […]

  3. Proposed Routine | Chris Johnson – Helping People Win - April 20, 2011

    […] or doing whatever else.   That’s six hours that I could use to invest in my life – reading above my level or whatever.  6 hours x 52 =  312 hours a year.  13 days a […]

  4. Annual Review II: My Year in Review | Austin Yoder - December 2, 2011

    […] I basically hit all of these goals, minus the scientific studies. I’m only half-way satisfied with how I did in the learning category in 2011, and I don’t feel like I really cultivated a spirit of learning throughout the year. I read a lot of new books, although I didn’t consistently read things above my level. […]

  5. How to Change Your Life: An Epic Guide to Building New Habits, Dealing with Fear, and Getting What You Want From Your Day - February 6, 2012

    […] Holiday wrote a post a while ago which is relevant here (see How to digest books above your level). This is important because pushing things past their usual end point is the only way you will ever […]

  6. Ryan Holiday’s Stoic Advice to Writers With Something to Say | Winning Edits - March 24, 2012

    […] Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”, you write that “Reading to lead or learn requires that you treat your brain like the muscle that […]

  7. Welcome to Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator | - July 19, 2012

    […] Second Act Fallacy) Advice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere Schemes and Scams Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” Contemptuous Expressions A False Sense Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs The […]

  8. Cheap Books, Expensive Ideas: The monthly book giveaway « Jordan Ayres - September 19, 2012

    […] Holiday’s approach to books when he first posted about it on his blog in 2007 (since updated here) and subsequently it changed the way I read, or should I say consumed books. I find by annotating […]

  9. Link Feast For Writers, vol. 40 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog - February 8, 2013

    […] Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” by Ryan Holiday […]

  10. Link Love (09/02/2013) « Becky's Kaleidoscope - February 9, 2013

    […] “I shouldn’t be able to read most of the books on my shelf. I never took a single classical history class and I cheated through most of Economics 001. Still, the loci of my library are Greek History and Applied Economics. And though they often are beyond me educationally, I’m able to comprehend them because of some equalizing tricks. Reading to lead or learn requires that you treat your brain like the muscle that it is–lifting the subjects with the most tension and weight. For me, that means pushing ahead into subjects you’re not familiar with and wresting with them until you can–shying away from the “easy read.”” Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” – Ryan Holiday […]

  11. barreras | - March 7, 2013

    […] Uno de mis escritores favoritos, Ryan Holiday, dice que decidió hace mucho tiempo que nunca dejaría que una restricción de tiempo o presupuesto le evitara comprar un libro. No los lee sino que los devora.. […]

  12. Lessons I learned reading 20 of my favourite blog posts | JORDAN AYRES - April 17, 2013

    […] 10. Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” (Ryan Holiday) […]

  13. Read To Lead: How To Digest Books Above Your “Level” | Thought Catalog - April 29, 2013

    […] This post originally appeared at RYANHOLIDAY.NET. […]

  14. How do I get into reading? | Following the Rules - May 12, 2013

    […] Holiday writes in his reading list that if you read two or three biographies, you’ll be smarter than all your friends because nobody reads, and I completely agree with him. That’s way you need to start reading before your friends […]

  15. Role Model Wishlist by - October 7, 2013

    […] want to write like Seth, I want to read like Holiday, I want to workout like Froning, I want to eat like […]

  16. Is School is the Easy Way Out? - Viralnomics - October 7, 2013

    […] friend Ryan Holiday wrote about his process on what he calls reading to lead and I’ve adopted many of the practices so will direct you there for a great piece once […]

  17. How I Read – Radhika Morabia - October 27, 2013

    […] really like anymore because they led me to fall into that Indie trash trap), somehow led me to Ryan Holiday’s post on how he reads, and I fell into the the rabbit hole of Ryan’s reading philosophy. This rapidly developed how […]

  18. Reading | Go Phoenix Go - December 18, 2013

    […] And this: […]

  19. Should I read? | Synapses - January 5, 2014

    […] HOW TO DIGEST BOOKS ABOVE YOUR “LEVEL” From: Ryan Holiday […]

  20. Blogs I read | Ryan Gum - February 6, 2014

    […] Of Marketing at American Apparel, AuthorMust read post: Read to Lead: How to digest books above your “level”Ryan’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator opened my eyes to the […]

  21. How To Beat “The System”: The Ultimate Scarcity of Good Stuff | - March 25, 2014

    […] part. The hard part is that this takes a long time and a lot of work. You have to pay your dues. Read the books. Study the best — the ones who came before and the ones who are doing it now. Find a mentor. […]

  22. Mini Success | When You Stress – Is It Eustress or Distress? - April 8, 2014

    […] of life for the past 30 years or so? Well you read! And you read everyday! You make it a habit to read to lead. You have the potential of being wise but you are not born with the knowledge you need, you need to […]

  23. The Book Cleanse | Eilish Hart Writing - June 3, 2014

    […] by Rosianna’s video and Ryan Holiday’s article about Digesting Books Above Your “Level” I’ve been trying to change my relationship with books. A huge part of Ryan’s […]

  24. What literature books should an 18 year old read to enhance vocabulary? - Quora - September 8, 2014

    […] a dayHere's a post by author Ryan Holiday on finding and digesting books "above" you…Embed QuoteWritten just now.Upvote0DownvoteComment Loading… Related […]

  25. What’s better than reading? Re-reading | Profound Reading - December 11, 2014

    […] of the book, its arguments and themes, and a mental model of the concepts being discussed. Researching the book before you jump in helps, but this work still has to be done no matter how much you study in […]

  26. Managers are Readers - December 30, 2014

    […] Extra credit (because I tend to batch in 5) is another from Ryan Holiday: Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” […]

  27. Productive Pastor 26: How to Read for Maximum Effectiveness - January 16, 2015

    […] 1. How and Why to Keep a Common Place Book 2. The Notecard System: The Key to Remembering, Organizing and Using Everything You Read. 3. Read to Lead: How To Digest Books Above Your Level.  […]

  28. Cómo leer un libro con atención plena (1ª parte) | Homo Minimus - February 21, 2015

    […] Read to lead: How to digest books above your level – Ryan Holiday […]

  29. Don’t Read To Escape | The Protagonist - February 22, 2015

    […] If you take pride in how much you read, speeding through a book simply to get to the next one, then you’re wasting your time. That’s the university mindset. I’ve been there; professors (or at least the bad ones) teach you that if you read enough to fill up your bibliography, then your essay will be a hit. But they actually don’t take the time to teach you how to read. […]

  30. Why You Should Read Ancient Classics Like Homer and Plato | Questioningly 2 - March 22, 2015

    […] I thought that way until I read Ryan Holiday’s article: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” […]

  31. How to Change Your Life: An Epic, 5,000-Word Guide to Getting What You Want - The Winners' Guide - August 30, 2015

    […] Holiday wrote a post a while ago which is relevant here (see How to digest books above your level). This is important because pushing things past their usual end point is the only way you will ever […]

  32. 5 Ways You Can ACTUALLY Increase Your Reading Speed | College Info Geek - October 2, 2015

    […] How to Digest Books Above Your “Level” by Ryan Holiday […]

  33. 3 simple ideas - Marc Jenkins - October 28, 2015

    […] books above your level, or read a Roman Emperor’s private notes to himself on stoic philosophy, or why people buy and […]

  34. How to Change Your Life: An Epic, 5,000-Word Guide to Getting What You Want | High Existence - November 2, 2015

    […] Holiday wrote a post a while ago which is relevant here (see How to digest books above your level). This is important because pushing things past their usual end point is the only way you will ever […]

  35. Solopreneurship Mini-Course #1: Learning to Read – Charlie Griffin - December 31, 2015

    […] I admire as an author, and I use to find most of my book recommendations.  His article about ‘how to digest books above your level’, suggests a better method for learning as much as possible from a book and allowing it to have a […]

  36. How I’m giving myself a REAL education – Sup, I'm Jeff - January 14, 2016

    […] experience while I read. Depth over speed. Articles I’ve found useful for active reading: Ryan Holiday on reading books above your level; Farnam Street on How to Read a Book. For a full book on this: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. […]

  37. Best of February | Chocolate & Zucchini - February 25, 2016

    […] isn’t a race, and how to digest books above your “reading […]

  38. The Struggle Against Ignorance – Kyle Morrow - March 20, 2016

    […] Holiday shared a great blog post about “reading to lead.” In the post, he suggests that people read books that are in an […]

  39. Top 5 Reasons Your Team Is Not Performing - March 29, 2016

    […] 6/ LEADERSHIP – Be the leader they want you to be and you know you can be. Lead by example and be prepared to serve them and the people in your practice at the highest level each day. You are a peak performer like a pro athlete or professional entertainer, so bring your game face each and every day and perform at your peak. I personally do my own morning ritual to start the day grounded and get into the right head and heart space. They say by reading an hour a day in your respective field will make you an expert in 7 years. Consider reading some leadership style books and implementing a new piece. There is a difference between reading and reading to lead. Check out this article on how to digest books ‘above your level.’Read to Lead. […]

  40. My Extended Bibliography for Ego Is The Enemy and How I Screwed It Up | RyanHoliday.netMy Extended Bibliography for Ego Is The Enemy and How I Screwed It Up - - June 17, 2016

    […] wasn’t for authors taking the time to recommend and acknowledge their sources. For a long time, my rule as a young reader was: Try to read one book mentioned in every book that you read. This philosophy took me down […]

  41. Experiment: taking notes while reading | NerisStream - September 3, 2016

    […] a collection of great ideas on how to interact with “above your level” books: […]

  42. Why Reading More Isn't Always Better - the idea vacuum - December 12, 2016

    […] a great article by Ryan Holiday, I was struck by the simple […]

  43. 3 simple ideas — Marc Jenkins - December 13, 2016

    […] books above your level, or read a Roman Emperor’s private notes to himself on stoic philosophy, or why people buy and […]