Is this situation familiar – you read a praised self-help book, and after that life continues as it was before? It does make sense to expect some help from a self-help thing, but if it really helped, fewer and fewer people would need that help. Seems this is not the case – there are more and more books to feed the rising demand.
Definitely, there is nothing wrong with most of the books, just look at the success stories surrounding the best of them. Is there something wrong with us, readers? I doubt that we have lots of potential. I guess the problem is with the reading process.
What’s wrong with reading?
Self-help book is not a fiction book, which we can read all night wandering in mysterious hidden worlds of imagination, and after finishing just put it back on the shelf. It is more like a practical textbook how to do one or the other particular task. Sometimes this task is clear: in a book “How to win friends and influence people” the task is to win friends and influence people. Sometimes this task unclear, but the book itself gives some directions like “The monk who sold his Ferrari” and it’s seven steps.
If the book is like a textbook, so probably it should be read like a textbook – carefully and paying attention to details.
However, for reasons unknown to me, such way of reading is rarely praised even among the self-help professionals (maybe they just want people to buy more books?). Just read read read, the more the better. 50 books a year is a goal. While it’s perfect for fiction, the self-help stuff should do its job – should help.
It might be argued that such intense reading helps to “see a thing from different angles”, but it’s like watching 100 youtube clips about quantum mechanics and seeing all those popular explanations again and again. Maybe I know all the explanations, but I do not understand the essence. Understanding the essence makes it unnecessary to see a thing from different angles or at least allows to understand more from the angle we’ve already taken.
I’m reading only a few self-help book a year, and because of that, I was feeling like an underachiever at first. How can I even live if I read only one self-help book in six months when someone does one a week? However, some of those I did read changed my life significantly.
“Winning” by Jack Welch changed my attitude towards the job and improved my performance.
“7 habits of highly effective people” changed the way I plan things in my calendar.
“Getting things done” changed the way I deal with to-do lists.
“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” provided me with some lasting self-acceptance.
“I ching” changed my understanding of change itself and empowered me to embrace sudden unpleasant changes of this world.
There were books that didn’t change anything, like the one about monks in Ferraris, but well, not every book is for everyone. But this reading is not a lottery too – like picking a book blindly and hoping that it will change something. It’s an art and science of reading which I practiced for many years and now I can share it.
The art and science of reading
One book might be enough to fix all the problems in one’s life. Many major religions have such “the one and the only” book compiled of many related and unrelated texts and scriptures. The Bible of Christianity, the Quran of Islam are two distinct examples. When people search for something – they search these things in the Bible or the Quran and, to the surprise of many – they find it.
Many modern self-help books are fragmented, they talk only about a narrow topic, but still, there are universal books like “Think and grow rich” or “Flow”. So, how to read a self-help book and get maximum benefit from it, be it narrow practical textbook or universal guide to life?
First of all, let’s agree that we will not consider the selection of the book, because if a book solves a problem that is so deep that already hurts – I guess we will naturally absorb it and digest it fully. But to reveal the hidden potential of any other book, we’ll need this strategy.
And also, if someone wants to read a self-help book just for fun, then I cannot deny anyone to do that. Enjoy!
There are four enhancements that make reading a book from a mere scanning through the surface to a digging for deeper meaning and application.
1) Make notes
There are many moments when we find a great idea, great suggestion and promise to ourselves to try it, but if we just keep reading we forget it. To prevent this, let’s make notes. A notebook and a pen can become inseparable companions to an e-book reader or a paper book.
The technique is simple: when you find a great idea in a book, just rewrite it in a notebook. It is better to rewrite it by hand, but other ways might be possible too. After reading the whole book – reread the notes, so it will be a reminder of all the best ideas.
“Copy paste” strategy is not recommended because rewriting itself is a way to remember things better. If you hate writing by hand, then retype, but not copy.
My recent way to make notes is to rewrite best quotes from a book to a paper notebook, then after finishing the book to retype them into a computer, and then reread them. I have such summaries of all best books I’ve read, so I can remind myself quickly what was it about and why did I like it.
Sometimes even reading and rereading a book does not help, because there are things that do not help just by knowing them – we must apply.
If we found a good idea and even made a note about it, it would be great to try it the next time it’s possible. If it’s a book about maintaining a small-talk, we can try maintaining the small-talk with the first person we met, if it’s a book about mindfulness we can try implementing ideas right after closing the book.
Sometimes it makes sense to make a summary of actionable ideas while making notes. The book might talk about 101 ways to improve sex life, so we don’t need to test every way, why not making a list of best options, and then choose the very best one after finishing the whole book. Same applies to 101 vegan dishes or 101 marketing strategies.
There might be a book that is not actionable at all, like a piece of philosophy. That’s fine, we can still apply other enhancements.
While reading I always try applying the ideas I’ve read. Honestly, I’ve read only about 3 habits from “7 habits of highly effective people”, but I applied what I read, especially about time-planning, so I consider this book as a life changer for me, despite I did not read it all.
It is easy to say, that: “oh, we should apply!”, but what if we just keep forgetting what to apply? Like we want to try that new strategy of dealing with people we found in a psychology book, but every time we meet people the mind goes blank…
That is why finding favorite and easy to remember quotes are a good idea. There are too many memes with quotes floating around internets because a mere quote is not a replacement for a book, but if you know the book – then it might be a great summary!
If one remembers stories or paragraphs from a book, there is no need to rely on memes for motivation, just remembering favorite lines might be inspirational enough. I do not suggest learning passages by heart, though. Just if we rewrite a really relatable story, and then reread it – it is possible, that it will become memorized. And if we reread that summary again – then it is even more possible.
I cannot recite passages from my favorite books exactly, but I remember stories and can loosely retell them. That lets me remember the main ideas of the book, and follow in the daily life what they’ve taught me.
The worst thing would be just learning quotes or passages by heart. The best thing is to understand them. There is one best way to understand things – to interpret, to retell them in our own words.
We can try explaining what we’ve read to other people. If you have ever heard about the learning pyramid, then you know that based on a research teaching others is the best way to learn and understand things. The second one is applying – also on our list here.
Also, we can try to make a summary of every chapter we’ve read. Or a summary of the whole book. Or a summary of the main techniques. Or a summary of notes taken. What kind of summary is the best – that depends on the book, for example, it would be reasonable to summarize 7 habits from “7 habits of highly effective people”, but the whole book at once for “Flow”.
A great way is to share the acquired knowledge by writing a blog post because for explaining thing in written language one must know the topic really well. And also this requires converting technical jargon to a simple language we are able to use.
What I personally do, I sometimes use ideas found in books to write my blog posts. “Getting things done” and “7 habits of highly effective people” contributed to an article about time planning, book “Flow” to a graphic story about emptiness, Buddhist literature – to articles about meditation and easier life.
All the mentioned enhancements help to suck all the juice of knowledge out of books and grease our gears of life with them. There is no need to apply all at once because sometimes it’s impossible. I did not manage to make a single note out of “How to win friends and influence people”, it’s all in the chapter titles. I cannot recite anything from “Rich dad, poor dad”, but the basic idea is clear.
Also, these enhancements slow down reading significantly – a good book takes double time to read while making notes. With all that rereading, applying, interpreting it becomes an extended process. Learning is a lifelong process, though, and self-help books are for learning.
I hope you’ll find these suggestions useful.
And now it is time to relax reading some fiction. (Some my favorite epic books for introverts are here)