How to Read: Lots of Inputs and a Strong Filter

My reading strategy is to start as many books as I can but finish few of them.

Years ago I heard Charlie Munger say “Most books I don’t read past the first chapter. I’m not burdened by bad books,” and it stuck with me. Reading is a chore if you insist on finishing every book you begin, because the majority of books are either a) adequately summarized in the introduction, b) not for you, or c) not for anyone. Grinding your way to the last page of these books – a habit likely formed early in school – can turn reading into the equivalent of a 10-hour work meeting where nothing gets done and everyone is bored. And once you see reading through that lens, your willingness to pick up another book wanes.

Which, of course, is tragic. “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” said Mark Twain. Every smart person I know is a voracious reader who also says “every smart person I know is a voracious reader.” There are so few exceptions to this rule it’s astounding. College tuition at $25,000 a year comes out to roughly $100 per lecture. Good books – sometimes written by the same professor – can be purchased for fifteen bucks and can offer multiple times as much life-changing insight.

The conflict between these two – most books don’t need to be read to the end, but some books can change your life – means you need two things to get a lot out of reading: Lots of inputs and a strong filter.

If you only pick up books you know with certainty you’re going to like you’ll confine yourself to reading the same authors on the same topics. It gives fresh oxygen to confirmation bias and limits your ability to connect the dots between different fields and different cultures. It’s better to have a low bar in what books you’re willing to try, and even the faintest tickle of interest should be enough to make the cut. Kindle samples are free so excuses are minimal.

Once you’ve flooded your desk with inputs comes the filter. It should be ruthless, taking no prisoners and offering no mercy. Similar to dating, a book you’re not into after 10 minutes of attention has little chance of a happy ending. Slam it shut and move on. You’re not a failure if you quit a book after three pages anymore than if you reject the proposition of a 10-hour date with someone you just met who annoys you. Lots of fish in the sea.

This applies to more than reading books. It’s true for all kinds of data, research, conversation, and learning. Without flooding your brain with inputs you’ll be stuck in the teeny tiny world of what you’ve personally experienced. But without a strong filter you’ll be overwhelmed with choice and paralyzed by inaction.

A good reading filter is more art than science. You’ll have to find one that works for you. The bigger point is that the highest odds of finding the right piece of information comes from inundating yourself with information but very quickly being able to say, “that ain’t it.”


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