In the old days, I read books on paper – you know, the kind that you would keep on a book shelf.
Now, I read books on my Kindle App on my iPad.
When I read the physical books, I would underline passages with a pen (I never much liked highlighters). And I would write in the margins. With words underlined, and stars and explanation points and question marks. (My best examples, alas, are put away in storage. I’ve been reading in Kindle for quite a few years now).
This was my way of taking notes on the books I read. And there is a long-verified finding that taking notes will help you remember.
I could, and would, literally remember passages in books by remembering my markings in the margins.
It made reading an active activity, not a passive one. I would agree with, and argue with, the author. He or she didn’t know it; but I did.
Now, in my current life, I take all of my Kindle highlighted passages, and edit them down into my synopsis handouts for the First Friday Book Synopsis and the Urban Engagement Book Club (and plenty of client presentations). My handouts are 10-12 pages long, usually. They are comprehensive.
But for my presentations, I write in the margins; a lot. I write instructions to myself; points to emphasize. It is, again, a very active process.
I have a strong recommendation for you in 2021. Write things down. On some kind of physical paper.
There are plenty of ways to do this:
Keep a journal
Keep a diary
Keep a list of books you read
Keep a list of presentations you heard
Write short notes in your lists, beside each item. Like:
“I learned to/was reminded to…write personal thank you notes.”
Once a month, or so, glance thorough your list, noting your few but important action items.
Keep a list of new things you learned.
Keep a list of things you already knew, but were reminded of, and should be doing.
WRITE SOMETHING DOWN; ON PAPER; PHYSICALLY; IN A PLACE WHERE YOU KNOW YOU CAN FIND IT; AND RETRIEVE IT; AND REMEMBER IT.
This, by the way, is one of the insights from David Allen in his classic book on time management, Getting Things Done. In other words, writing things down, on paper, is a way to get more done.
So, here’s a simple New Year’s Resolution for 2021; one that is easy to do, and follow. One that might make a bigger difference than you realize.
WRITE STUFF DOWN!
Happy New Year!
Here’s what I mean. I am frequently asked “what is the best book you have ever read?” And then, at times, this question is asked: “what is the best book you have read on the subject of ____________________?”
I do have some answers:
The best book I have ever read is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Or, maybe, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
The best book I have ever read about time management is: Getting Things Done by David Allen.
The best book I have ever read on racial issues is: as of this moment, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. (But I’m pretty sure that I am going to switch that answer to Caste by Isabel Wilkerson in about three weeks).
But, here’s the deal. I am not a literary critic. I am a simple learner. I do read some books for fun and enjoyment, but I mainly read books to learn. To learn in specific areas. And to help others learn from these books.
And what I have learned is that if your purpose in reading books is to learn, though there may be one “best book on _________________,” one book, even the best book, is never enough.
For example, this month, I am reading The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradan. (I will present my synopsis of this at the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare, on Nov. 19). Is it the best book I have read on racial issues? No. But is it important? Yes, it is.
I am learning some history that I did not know well enough. And I am learning a lot about the long-term strategies of people in power – white people — to keep Black people segregated, generally down. And I am even learning about their strategies to use (abuse) Black people as a means to maximize wealth by using Black people as a major source of money accumulation; all without Black people being given a fair chance to be full participants in the endeavors.
In other words, this book is filling in knowledge gaps that I had, and did not know that I had.
This has happened to me time and time again. I will read a book. It is a good book; or, at times, even a mediocre book. But it has something in it that I did not know, and it is something that I needed to know.
You know that phrase “life-long learner?” Take that phrase literally. Learning is LIFE-LONG! You have not yet read the book that would make you say: “OK. That one did it. Now I know enough about everything I should know.”
There is always the next book to read, because there is always the next thing to learn.
Your questions are:
What am I learning right now?
What will I want and need to learn next?
Reading a lot of books is not quite equal to learning what is in those books, is it?
I have been giving a whole lot of thought to this. I have been thinking about my own life trajectory. I have been thinking about speeches and presentations I have heard – and given. And I have been thinking about watching audiences. And I have reached a conclusion.
I am not the only one to reach this conclusion. But so many people have not paid attention to this.
Here is my conclusion: “passive” learning is not really learning.
Learning requires active learning. It requires serious work. It requires active participation. It requires listening, and reading, and writing, and pondering, and reviewing, and studying. Especially studying!
Last Friday, I presented my synopsis of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis. It is a book about a lot; but it is also a book about learning; learning from studying. The book is filled with insights about this. Start with this one, directly from the book:
PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener.
Note what he says. Using PowerPoint is not a good practice because it “encourages passivity in the listener.” That is a genuinely important and significant observation.
In my synopsis handout, I included this: There is a difference between reading – and – studying.
- Mattis learned from; quoted from…Alexander the Great; Marcus Aurelius; General Grant, Rommel, and a host of others… —
- I read broadly and selected a few battles and areas where I was weak to study deeply.
- Read history, but study a few battles in depth.
- Learning from others’ mistakes is far smarter than putting your own lads in body bags.
- On a Saturday morning, the sergeant major requested that I drop by for a quiet discussion. Technically, I outranked him, but no lieutenant with his wits about him is slow to respond when his top noncommissioned officer wants to talk with him alone. “You are a very persuasive young man,” he said, handing me a book about a Roman centurion, “but it would be best if you did your homework first.”
- But I well recall an Israeli exchange officer, on a sweltering run in the Virginia woods, bellowing at me that the physically vigorous life is not inconsistent with being intellectually on top of your game. “Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said.
Jim Mattis read (still reads) a lot of books – a lot of books! But more than just reading the books, he studied the books.
And he did so as a Marine. The Marines assign reading, with a specific book list, for each rank. From early in his book: It now became even more clear to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: that reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. … the Marine Corps’s insistence that we study (vice just read) history, paid off.
One advantage was that an officer could assume that the Marines listening knew some common stories and principles from the books they had read; learned from the books they had all read!
Here’s what I think: we are way too passive in our learning. We look at slides; we listen to audio books. But we don’t recap; we don’t outline; we don’t underline, and highlight, and re-fresh our memory.
In other words, we don’t STUDY!
And, if we don’t study, we don’t really learn.
And there is so much we need to learn; so much important stuff to learn.
I think it’s time for a revival of study habits.
Are you in?
See also this blog post: The Warrior Monk General and his Traveling Library of 6000 books.
• By the way, Jeff Bezos has also gotten rid of PowerPoint at Amazon; for these very reasons.
• And, also, my synopses are great tools for those wishing to study books more seriously. Check out our new additions by clicking here. (My synopsis of Call Sign Chaos will be available soon).