Observations, Analyses and Experiments on Personal Growth

Year: 2020 (page 1 of 2)

Reading on a topic vs Reading a book

In the classic book on reading “How to read a book,” Adler distinguishes four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical.

Syntopical reading (an arcane term, in our view, that requires an update but a useful concept nevertheless) is the kind of reading where a specific topic, and the readers’ concerns with that topic, take center-stage over the book that is being read. In other words, “it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.

In other words, “it is you and your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.” In this type of reading, it is you, the reader who is in the drivers’ seat, not the author. According to Adler:

Syntopical reading is not an easy art, and that the rules for it are not widely known. Nevertheless, syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

It is also the most rewarding kind of reading, if only you know how. This is the kind of reading that is most useful in today’s world, but the kind that is rarely taught in schools or universities. So how do you read “synoptically”?

There are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is preparatory, and the other is syntopical reading proper. I would add a step 0 to this, which is about identifying and articulating your topic – something that is not as trivial as one might think. But let’s assume for a moment that you have a good definition of the topic you want to tackle, and you acknowledge that your ambition to understand it goes broader and deeper than any one book would be able to satisfy. Let’s proceed to Step 1.

Stage I. Preparatory: Survey the Field

1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject.

In the world of Adler, this was done through a recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.In modern world, this would be more of the art of the internet search to shortlist the books and articles you want to read. Personally, I like to tackle this with a list of prominent thinkers in the field and tracking down the bibliography of the author. Start with books or start with authors – the intent is to have a first list of good reading material.

2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.

Inspecting a book has two stages to it – systematic skimming and superficial reading. The intent here is to get, in as short a time as possible, a good understanding of what this book about, what kind of book this is, and whether you want to spend more time on this book. Inspectional reading is done quickly because the goal is to get the gist of the book and the overarching idea.

You could also read abstracts or reviews (even though Adler warns against relying on them too much, and I concur with it to some extent – someone else’s interpretation of the book might not be the same as what the author intended). The trick to using abstracts and reviews correctly is to read them with a critical mind, even more than you would do with a book.

A particularly useful aid, which was probably not as easily available in Adler’s age, is short talks/videos, long form articles and reviews with the prominent thinkers/critics. This could help you get the gist of a writer’s work, at least to the extent to decide whether you want to dive deeper into it.

Stage II. Syntopical Reading of the materials from stage I

1. Find the most relevant passages:

Based on the inspectional reading you did in Stage I, figure out which are the most relevant passages/sections to read. Don’t try to read them all and be as selective as you can be. Less is more, in my opinion, in this step. 

2. Bring the authors to terms:

This is Adler’s way of saying – establish your own terminology on the subject. Keep is as neutral as you can, which will help to translate and synthesize multiple authors towards a structure or system of your choosing.

3. Frame a set of questions:

I find this the most important step of the process – whereby you establish the questions and sub-questions you want to answer. These questions may not be directly answered by the authors, but the “detective work” of reading will be to find the indirect clues that provide the pathway towards them.

4. Define the issues:

This is about finding answers to the questions you framed in step 3, but in a way that is your interpretation of it. An independent perspective is key to this step.

5. Analyze the discussion: 

This is best done by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. The key output of this step has to be an orderly arrangement of the different issues/arguments on the topic, organized in a way that it answers your questions and makes clear their relationship to each other.

2 Stages. 7 steps in total. Syntopical reading is not for the casual reader, but if you are about to tackle a new topic, or would like to deepen your expertise in one you are merely acquainted with, following this steps would be to your benefit. It would give you breadth and depth, with minimal time spent. Try it out!

Read to grow

Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.

Khalil Gibran

Consider two stacks of books – one with all the books you read in 2010, and the other with all the books you read/ plan to read in 2020. Are you reading more or less? Are you reading the same topics, or have you broadened your reading repertoire? Has your depth and expertise, and ability to absorb complexity of the topics or the storyline increased?

If you don’t see much progress between the two points in time, don’t fret – you are in good company with most other adults. However, if this were the case with your bank account, you would likely not be so indifferent. To at least keep up with the rate of inflation, you would insist on the growth of your material wealth over time. The same concept, though much less understood, applies to our intellectual wealth.

Intellectual inflation – whereby what we know in 2010 is not as valuable in 2020 – is just as real as economic inflation. It has as profound an impact at the individual level. But it is a concept that is hard to comprehend, and harder still to quantify. Unlike the currency of economic wealth, intellectual wealth is not valued in absolute terms but in relation to its ability to bring about change and improvement in a person’s life. This depends on each individual’s specific context, capabilities and goals. In other words, while you can measure money against commonly accepted standards, your intellectual growth is up to you to measure.

Tip #1: Chart your reading trajectory
Take any two points in time – say A and B – between which your life has significantly changed. It could be a transition from student to working life, one job to another, one country to another, or just a period before and after an emotional personal transformation. List out the books that you were reading at point A and point B. Try to capture 4-5 books in each period. Without much scientific or quantitative rigor, assess for yourself your reading trajectory – essentially a gauge of the progress you have made. Treat it as a moment of self-reflection on whether you are satisfied at the progress of your reading journey.

The concept of growth lies at the heart of charting a trajectory – the fundamental assumption being that during the course of a lifetime, we make small steps of personal elevation, each making us a better person than we were. Our markets and our economy are obsessed with growth, however at closer examination, growth is not necessarily a fundamental imperative but a cultural construct.

Smil’s latest tome “Growth” covers the concept of growth from megacities to micro-organisms. The book, through rigorous analysis, tries to make the point that the end of growth is inevitable. However, I read Smil because he is a historian, not necessarily a futurist, and what I particularly like about the book is its rigorous examination of the concept of growth as applied to both nature and society.

t examines the rules and patterns of growth in energy consumption, human artifacts, and human populations, societies and economies.

Bill Gates warns that “Growth” is not a book for everyone, but if that statement makes you feel apprehensive to pick up the book, I would suggest reframing that comment to – what would it take for me to read this book with the same ease and absorb as much from it as someone like Bill Gates?

You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Peter Drucker

If you are like most people, you would go about such a task starting with goal setting, and then tracking your progress to your goals. Tracking reading progress is often reduced to just measuring the number of books you read. That measure is too coarse to serve any real purpose. Websites like GoodReads offer reading challenges (I confess, I do take part in them) which are purely based on number of books read. While some measure is better than no measure, we believe that there is a need to measure all facets of a reading journey.

Tip #2: Quantify your read
Start small – if you have never measured your reading, start with a simple reading journal. As you get comfortable with this, try out goal setting with a broader personal purpose in mind and then documenting your reads by genre and topic you would like to cover. As you get more comfortable in quantifying your read, or if you are already a QuantifiedRead practitioner, assign each book a progress score – whereby it is a measure of how much the book contributed towards your own personal goal, whether it is information, understanding or transformation.

A side note to this – reading fiction is often associated with reading for entertainment. This could not be farther from the truth. Studies have, time and again, showed that fiction can have a transformative experience in individuals, and if read right, it can result in as much personal growth, if not more, than non-fiction. However, in case of fiction, the writer is often less explicit on what is it that you might gain from a book, leaving it more up to the reader. Therefore, the concept above is as relevant for fiction, it just requires a more objective and astute assessment on the part of the reader.

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton

Growth and elevation are individual concepts, but they also have a collective aspect to them. Reading is the ultimate act of standing on the shoulders of others.  It is how we acquire the foundational knowledge in a topic where much work has been done before. But once we are there, we have a responsibility. An obligation to contribute.

Tip #3: Contribute to collective human progress
Go on, be audacious! We are all on earth for a unique purpose – just because we may not have unearthed it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Which is that specific field that you are so passionate about that you are a fount of knowledge? And could you, in that topic, be the person who pushes our collective understanding beyond what those who have come before us have done? The chosen area could be small or big, that is immaterial as long as it is yours for a unique reason.

Our recommendations list covers the topic of Growth – it is a broad topic that can be interpreted in many ways, we have tried to cover the different aspects of this theme.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read to learn, learn to read

Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.

Warren Buffet

Learn to Read to Read to Learn”  is a concept that most educators, and many parents are familiar with. The fundamental premise here is that “Learn to Read” occurs during the early years of a child’s education and consists primarily of decoding and memorizing basic words. They continue progressing through this stage until they achieve “fluency” (expected around age 6-8 in most education systems) at which point they’re ready to tackle increasingly difficult text and begin to “Read to Learn”. From then on, for the rest of our lives, we are expected to be fully equipped to read to learn.

This system, which many of us have been part of whether it was called this or not, is fundamentally flawed. Specifically for (at least) three reasons:

  1. Continuous parallel processes: More recent studies have pointed out that learning to read and reading to learn occur not sequentially, but in parallel, and they don’t stop at a certain age
  2. Contextual knowledge is critical: All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. The more you know, the more you will get out of your read
  3. Technological advances: Twenty years ago, the “readTech” (our term for tools and services to aid reading) we had was limited. Most of us have not taken the time to change or update the way we read, while those who read best are those who use technology to their aid.

So what does this mean? As adults, as we continue to read to learn, it is important to take the time to also learn to read. To consider these as continuous parallel processes, which we deliberately improve with increasing age, knowledge and technological advances. In today’s age of information overload, rapidly changing expectations and increasing uncertainty, it is more of a critical skill than ever before.

Tip #1: Continue to learn how to read
Knowledge (like wealth) follows a compounding principle – knowledge accumulation, just like wealth accumulation, favors the one who already has more. The more you invest in learning how to read, the better you get at it, thus setting in motion a virtuous cycle of personal growth and development. So it makes sense to continue to learn how to read.

How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren is an old classic – when it was first written in 1940, it became a best seller to even the author’s surprise. He later updated it in 1972. The book is a little outdated, but there are some good concepts and approaches in there on how to read better.

The book distinguishes between four levels of reading— elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical, and also recommends when to apply which level, and how to approach different kinds of reading materials—practical and theoretical books, imaginative literature (lyric poetry, epics, novels, plays), history, science and mathematics, social science, and philosophy.

I like good definitions, Adler defines the art of reading as:

“the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.”

In other words, the mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. Our mind elevates itself; we grow as individuals. That is, in essence, the act of reading. However, to achieve an elevation from “reading” requires a broader definition of the activity of reading than the physical act when you are in front of the book.

Tip #2: Don’t forget the Pre-and post-reading phases
Think of your reading workflow from beginning to end. We suggest five phases:

  • Goal setting (where you decide whether to read or not and how much)
  • Planning (what to you want to read and in what sequence)
  • Reading (how do you read a specific book – we discussed different reading styes in Issue 2)
  • Retaining (how do you ensure you remember what you read) and
  • Applying (getting to insights and action)

Here are two excellent articles on enhancing the pre–  and post- reading experience.

Armed with an ability to read and learn, it is possible to read about and learn any topic you set your mind to.  In keeping with the theme of this Issue, here are a few recommendations on learning and reading. including one for a younger audience( “learning to read”).

Armed with an ability to read and learn, it is possible to read about and learn any topic you set your mind to.  In keeping with the theme of this Issue, here are a few recommendations on learning and reading, including one for a younger audience (“Learning how to read”).

Tip #3: Augment your reading
Technology has evolved significantly, and “readTech” has much to offer these days. Take the time to review your end-to-end reading workflow and to consider if any of the tools available out there could help you make your reading more pleasurable and productive.

In the last Issue, I wrote about how I highlight and re-read my books, and a couple of you reached out to know how I do it. So here goes.

I highlight and make notes as I read (across platforms and devices) and at the end of the book, I email them to MyZenith.io, where I then get a consolidated overview of all my annotations. If needed I also add extra notes at this stage. I review them periodically – this helps in both retaining the key concepts, but also to discover unexpected connections across my multiple reads.

The tool is right now in beta version, but you can join the list to get access when it is available.

The science of learning suggests that connection and repetition are the two important means to help us get the most out of our reading. Tools like MyZenith use recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help us connect and enhance across our reading and thus get even more out of the reading. Check it out!


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read to your heart’s desire

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Reading, like any other activity, has its ups and downs. Reading is joy, solace and happiness. It can also feel like a chore, a to-do, a task in the service of something else. My own experience in keeping the balance between the pleasure of reading and extracting the full benefits of reading is to read what I need, at any point in time (we talked about mindful reading here). Usually, I read to a plan and schedule, but I do happily abandon plans, often enough. But then there are weeks where you let go of plans and read to my heart’s desires.

Read with the times
Everywhere I look, I am confronted by top-ten lists of Pandemic-related books.

For the last five weeks, I’ve resisted the temptation to pick up any of those, until I finally gave in, and re-read Camus’s The Plague. This book needs no introduction – an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria in the middle of a deadly epidemic. I was struck by how beautifully Camus captures the absurdity of life, its irrationality, and human reactions to things beyond our control.

The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:

“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory.”

A sobering thought, but relevant nonetheless. Instead of pointing to Pandemic-related literature (as the Plague being the only one I have read myself), let me point to some good lists instead.

Tip #1: When you find yourself in a reading rut, perhaps because you are in the middle of a hard book or the noise around you is too hard to ignore, give yourself some permission to read whatever you feel like. And if you don’t feel like reading anything, maybe just pick up whatever everyone else is reading, or talking about reading, even if it is not your genre or your type of book.

Read to travel

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr. Seuss

Most of us are trapped in the four walls of our home, and we are looking forward to venturing out. It feels uncouth to complain about the lack of travel – but as they say, “To see the world is to love the world.” Now more than ever, I feel love for our world. I feel a deep gratitude for our fellow beings, those who are in the critical services that keep society going and those who are staying at home. I feel an empathy and compassion across borders best ignited by hard and intense shared experiences. Just because we can’t physically transport ourselves, it does not mean we can’t learn and experience other cultures and places.

I turned to the next best thing to seeing the world – to read about the world. I picked up Patrick Jered’s “Finding the Demon’s Fiddle.” Part travel-writing, part detective work and part exploration of mythology, the book is about the writer’s journey to find the origins of Ravanahatta, a predecessor to the violin, and invented, supposedly by the Demon King Ravana.

Jered manages to interleave philosophy, mythology and humor in a long book that feels surprisingly short. Imagine yourself in an old colonial house in coastal Sri Lanka when you read this:

“Colombo House had an off-white silence, like a Proustian sense of regret; a faded youthful decadence – not quite managing to feign responsibility in its old age. Its huge room with tall ceilings and period furniture whispered the conversations of long past.”

It is a book to savor, to absorb, and let yourself go along in the obsessive quest of the writer to get to the bottom of the mystery of this ancient instrument.

Tip#2: If you are feeling walled off physically, let your mind wander the world by picking a book about a place that you would love to visit – perhaps a place that was in your summer plans for this year, or perhaps the place hardest to reach on your bucket list. Or perhaps pick up a book about a place where you’ve already been and relive the memories and be surprised by things you may not have noticed when you were there. Here are some recommendations for interesting reads about interesting places.

Read to re-live:
Interestingly both the books I reached out to this week for comfort were books I had read previously. I wanted to read something that I knew for sure that I would enjoy, something that fit my mood just right. There is no way to be sure of that unless you had read it before. In a way, it also meant I didn’t need to read the book sequentially and entirely as I would do on a first read – I dipped in and out, and I read my own highlights and notes. A book like  Finding the Demon’s Fiddle would have taken me a while to read from beginning to end, but going through parts I curated helped me remember and re-live the experience in a shorter time.

Recently I have been experimenting with highlighting the favorite passages of my books and revisiting them. It feels as if someone who knows me intimately (my own past self in this case) has carefully curated the best parts of my favorite books, and even left me little notes on how that relates to my life and thoughts – the best of the best, personalized, just for me. Now, isn’t that a luxury!

Tip#3: Highlight passages, sentences or even just phrases that you find striking. Most ebooks have a feature to add notes to your highlights too. Take the time occasionally to review and savour your annotations. I am often surprised by the new perspective that I get on a re-read, either because it is the second or third read, or because I am just reading it in a different context which gives a new meaning to the text. In my experience, this works just as well for fiction as for non-fiction. Repetition has proven to be one of the best ways to retain knowledge, the more often you review, the more you get out of your reading.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read to be ready

The future depends on what we do in the present.

Mahatma Gandhi

A good read is a good reason to read

Most of us read when we are children. We read to learn the basic skills of literacy, to acquire some level of general contextual knowledge, and later specific knowledge about a field we choose to specialize in. The adults around us insist that we learn and read so that we can be “ready” to face the world. And then, one day we leave our educational institutions and the safety of our homes behind, and declare ourselves ready to face the world. For most of us, the time we spend on productive reading decreases dramatically from then on. When it is no longer required of us, other priorities take over and reading gets relegated either to the realm of pleasure activities or to the bottom of a to-do list, as an item that we rarely get to.

In the book The 100-Year Life, professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott talks about a multi-stage life (as opposed to the three-stage life of education, employment and retirement that our grandparents experienced).  A child born in 1914 had a 1% probability of living to 100 years old. A child born in 2007 has a 50% chance of living to be 100.

For most of us in between, there is a more than reasonable chance that we will live to more than 90 years old, if not 100. Yet, we are not prepared. Our lifestyles still reflect the three-stage life, where learning and reading are predominant in just the first stage and we expect a sequential, predictable and lockstep path through life stages. This is one example of a profound change that has already happened, but one we haven’t adapted to in response. Many such changes abound – from climate change to urbanization to most technological advances.

Society will eventually catch up and politicians and corporations will adapt policies and job requirements to new realities. But that is unlikely to happen at scale in our lifetime, or to our individual advantage. What’s the alternative, and what has that got to do with reading?

Read for foresight:

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

Sherlock Holmes

None of us have crystal balls or time machines. But that does not mean that knowing the future enough to be prepared is a fool’s errand. We may get the specific dates and specific events wrong, but the general trajectory of human development and future opportunities follows predictable paths, if only we know how to look for it.

Reading for foresight has as much to do with analyzing the past as it has with predicting the future. While the past cannot be changed, our understanding of the past certainly can, and in that also lies a way to predict the future. Understanding the past, its relation to the present and extrapolating to the future is closest to detective work, perhaps a lot more exciting endeavor than reading.  

Reading Tip #1: Read like Sherlock Holmes: Peering into the future has many similarities to solving a mystery. Here are the seven strategies of Sherlock Holmes  as applied to reading for foresight: Define the question, Approach the question with a blank mind, Learn how to read relevant material, Use logic, Never give up an opportunity to listen while you read (aka close reading), Never underestimate anyone, and Learn how to recognize vital facts from incidental facts.  Seeing the future is quite elementary, don’t you see?

You could consider that each book you read is a piece of evidence, and what you glean out of it is a clue to solving the mystery of what the future holds. Exciting! To get your started, here are a list of books that could give you some clues on what the future will bring.

Read to pivot:
Let’s assume you have formed your views on what the future will bring thanks to your good detecting skills.  Now comes the hard part – for most of us, acting on the knowledge of the future would mean changes. That’s got nothing to do with what exactly you do now or who you are, but more to do with the fact that the world is changing faster than ever, and whether we accept it or not, we are already living in a multi-stage world.

We are in that exact generation where we were not prepared to live a multi-stage life when we were children, which means it falls on us in our adulthood to acquire the skills to change and adapt. Pivot — I would like to call it, because it is not all that different from a start-up which has discovered that it needs to re-imagine its talents and assets to capture a different opportunity than it had originally intended. Applied to an individual level, it is about how to use your skills, talents and passion to a new area or profession?

Reading Tip #2: Read it when you need it. Reading is best approached when there is a purpose to it, not as a vanity metric to hit a certain number of books in a specified period. It is also helpful to seek out books that answers your questions or help you out in the specific context you are currently in.  If you are trying to pitch your new start-up, don’t just read a book on marketing, but rather a book specifically about writing business plans and to approach investors. The more specific you can be, the better. That’s why you should choose your books based on what you need to learn right now, so you can use the information you consume.

You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that.

Roald Dahl

Before any major change, lies a decision.  If you are contemplating changes or would like to read up on effective deliberation and decision-making, here are a few relevant recommendations.

The world is always changing – “change is the only constant” is an enduring cliché for a reason. What is relevant now is that crises accelerate change. Contrary to popular thinking, the world doesn’t change dramatically because of a crisis, the change was always afoot. But the crisis forces us to accept it and change ourselves, sooner than we would have liked. Now that we are living through a drastic, pervasive change like none of us have ever experienced, what will you do about it? The concepts here – to develop foresight and pivot (if/when needed) – are hopefully helpful. There are many means to do these, and several of the approaches often need to be used together, but reading is usually the efficient, first and no-regret step that supports other actions.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read with perspective

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.

Daniel Kahneman

A good read is a good reason to read

A good read is one that changes you, has an impact on you, ideally in a way that you want to be changed. But is that always the case? Depends on what you read, and how you read it. Gone are the days when there were trusted gatekeepers to the written word – when editors and publishers (supposedly) safeguarded the interests of the reading public. With the ease of publishing these days, writers are dime a dozen, fake news artists even more. We are left to our own good senses to make sure what we read is indeed a good read. We like to call these good senses a matter of perspective.

Perspective (noun) \ pər-ˈspek-tiv \ : a particular way of thinking about something, especially one that is influenced by your beliefs or experiences

Let’s talk about reading and perspective. Three things about perspective, really, since all good things come in threes.

First is about forming an Independent Perspective. We consume information throughout the day, whether it is from a book, a long-form article or short snappy news. We believe that learning more about the world keeps us better informed. Optimistic, but sadly untrue. To see the world as it is, and not as others want us to see it, requires a rather uncommon skill of putting things in perspective.

One of my favorite books about perspective is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. Rosling was a medical doctor, a global health professional and the founder of Gapminder Foundation, an organization whose mission is to fight devastating ignorance. If you don’t believe the widespread lack of awareness, try out the Factfulness Quiz here.

While the quiz may seem like it is about general knowledge, the book addresses much more than that – it explains ten “instincts” that make it difficult for humans to have a fact-based view of the world, and goes on to explain practical ways to avoid the pitfalls.

It is an excellent read for our times, to help us sift out the fact from fake, the detail from the drama, the right from the rhetoric. Now more than ever, we need to train our own ability to put things in perspective. And this book is an excellent guide to replacing our faulty instincts with critical thinking so that we may develop an independent perspective and see the world for what it is.

The second concept is Plasticity of Perspective. Try to think back to the last time you learned something radically new? The last time you were willing to let go a firmly-held belief and replace it with something that you had not previously considered or had judged inconceivable? Children find it easy to learn and change their mind, most adults don’t. As we age, our brains tend to get more fixed in our neural pathways. However, recent studies have shown that it can indeed be altered, but with deliberate efforts.

It is not the most intellectual or the strongest species that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to or adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

Charles Darwin

Without getting into a discussion on neuroplasticity here, let’s talk about retaining our ability to change our opinions, to learn something new, to be surprised. I like to think of this as collecting “aha-moments.” That moment when you learn a new concept, when you understand something for the first time, when you see something in a new light – that’s pretty close to bliss. But those are hard to come by as we age, unless…we go looking for it.

Let me share with you the source of my most recent aha-moments – Ted Chiang’s short story collection “Exhalation”. Exhalation is a wonderful collection of stories that make you think, it opens and bends your mind. My favourite is the story titled “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, about a near-future in which fallible human memory is superseded by searchable digital video.

Chiang in his masterful prose takes us not only forward, but also backward to reflect on how the written word is really an augmentation of human memory. While most of us hold the “truth” in high esteem, the story also forces you to think of the concept of the absolute truth as a cultural construct, and as the title suggests, there is the possibility of the truth of the fact and the truth of the feeling, and one need not be better than the other even when the two don’t agree.

Last concept to consider – Heterogeneity of Perspectives. Quite simply, this is about not living in our own bubble. We all live in bubbles of some sort, and the ones who deny this most vehemently usually inhabit the most impenetrable ones. Algorithms that govern what we read – from the Facebook newsfeed to the book recommendations of Amazon – dictate what you see or read next based on what you read and liked before. They play on our instinctive need to be in our comfort zones, to not have our views challenged. Yet in the future that we cannot yet see, the ability to know and hold differing perspectives will be critical not just for success, but for survival. How do we pull ourselves out of the self-reinforcing mechanisms (internal and external) that drags us deeper and deeper into what one already knows and away from experiencing differing viewpoints?

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

A simple way to overcome this – stick your head out of the bubble once in a while. Actively seek out books (other sources work as well, but this newsletter is about reading after all) that challenge your perspective. How about picking up a book or an author you know you will hate?  How about getting inspired by the reading choices of someone who represents the polar opposite of your views in the political spectrum? How about trying a genre you would never have considered?

Ray Dalio’s Principles addresses this topic in what he calls radical open-mindedness – the ability to explore different points of view without our ego or blind spots getting in the way. Principles is a clear and candid account of how Dalio started and grew Bridgewater Associates to be the largest and most successful hedge fund in the world.

It is rare to get a view of the mistakes and learning of someone of that stature and achievements, even rarer to then have them abstract those and distill down into principles that you and I could apply.

To summarize:

  • Seek out multiple viewpoints, even (and especially) those different from your own (Heterogeneity of Perspective)
  • Develop the ability to rationally make up your own mind after considering different viewpoints (Independence of Perspective), and
  • When appropriate, be willing and able to change your mind (Plasticity of Perspective).

If you can master these three – which are really skill sets that can be honed by deliberate practice – you are well on your way to making sure that everything you read is indeed a good read.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read to connect

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books…

Mary Ruefle

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

Connection. Humans crave connection, and it especially becomes apparent when we are deprived of it. Isolation cells are one of the most feared of punishments, often dreaded more than physical torture, by even the most hardened of criminals. In his book Social, Matthew Lieberman argues that our brains are literally “wired” to connect, and it is a need more fundamental and more basic than our need for food or shelter.

Reading is an act of connection – to the author who wrote the book as we are welcomed to the inner world that he/she created, to our inner selves as we read and reflect and get to know our own selves a little better, and to others around us as we learn to empathize more and perhaps, even share what we read and learn.

You are what you read, choose wisely

Our need for connection may be universal, but the way we connect is anything but. The Culture Map is categorized as a business book, and it is primarily aimed at decoding how cultural differences impact work across different countries. But we chose this book for this Issue’s recommendation because it is ultimately about connecting. Specifically about connecting across cultures, and that felt relevant in today’s global world, where when we wake up from this hopefully temporary restraints, more than ever, we need to keep the connection and compassion across borders.

In The Cultural Map, Erin Meyer uses eight “scales” (e.g. communicating, trusting, persuading), where each scale is a continuum with the two ends, to describe a specific aspect of culture. While this may come across as a recipe for stereotyping, Meyer is clear to point out that it espouses just the opposite – people are ultimately treated as individuals, with her approach as a crutch to understand their cultural contexts better. 

Understanding humans is a tricky business, connecting deeply is even more so. Books can help us along this process. For a longer list of recommendations on connection that cuts across genres go here.

Some tips and some tricks

  1. Reflect as a you read – Connecting well to others requires a strong sense of connection to our own selves. Reflective, or even meditative reading is an excellent medium to increase self-awareness, and to connect more deeply to who we are. Reading allows us a safe haven to explore our inner selves: fiction often allows us to examine harsh truths about ourselves through the stories of others, non-fiction provides us with insights or theories to explain our own struggles, which may otherwise seem impenetrable. Regardless of what you read, it does require an introspective mindset and the willingness to dig deeper, with the express intent to get better acquainted to one’s own self.
  2. Practice prosocial reading – One of the implications of the social wiring of humans, as covered in Social,  is that we learn better when it is done in order to teach someone else than when we learn in order to take a test – i.e. “prosocial learning” that relies on the social networks of the brain are more effective. This has a practical application in the Feynman technique of learning. Named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, this technique proposes an approach where you try to explain what you learn to someone else. Next time you read something, perhaps try and explain to someone else, or share your learning with someone else in an easy to understand way. That way you learn better, you help someone else, and you fulfill your brain’s primitive need to stay connected.
  3. Connect with authors – Writers are notoriously recluse. Just twenty years ago, connecting with the author of your favorite book would have required hunting down book tours or obscure email addresses. Today though, most writers have an active internet presence and often actively engage with their audience. I have been happily surprised by responses I received to random emails I sent off to authors whose works moved me. I have no idea whether this has any effect on making you a better reader, or to help you to read more – I just find it super cool when famous authors reply back! Try it, it’s fun.

If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read to lead

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

Margaret Fuller

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

We are all leaders in our own right. Whether at work, in our family or community, or just being in charge of our own life – we are all expected to lead. How do we become better leaders? Who is a good leader? Is leadership innate or nurtured? We may have various and differing opinions on these questions, but what is harder to disagree is that leaders of all stripes have relied on books. Bill Gates reads about 50 books a year, Warren Buffet reads 5-6 hours a day, Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day. And it is not all about reading non-fiction or business books – Steve Jobs had an “inexhaustible interest” in William Blake, Sidney Harman called poets “the original systems thinkers,” quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson…the list goes on and on.

So what is it about reading that makes good leaders? Smarts – that’s the obvious one. Reading improves intelligence, reading broadly across subject areas allows us to see unexpected patterns and connections – it improves innovation, insight and creativity. Of course, there are many ways to get smarter, but from an end-to-end Return-on-Minutes (ROM) perspective, reading is the clear winner in acquiring information and enhancing intelligence.

Equally important, but perhaps less appreciated, is the role of reading in developing ‘softer’ skills. Reading literature helps to improve our empathy, appreciate social cues better and ultimately be more compassionate leaders. Many management studies have linked higher emotional intelligence to organizational performance. Not to mention the positive impact of a regular reading habit on self-management – reading is meditative and works better than listening to music or going for a walk to reduce stress.

Fun Fact: Did you know that Winston Churchill won the Nobel prize in 1953 in Literature and not Peace?

You are what you read, choose wisely

Traditional books on leadership – the kind that you find on most management shelves – are prone to theory, and often wonderfully divorced from the reality of everyday challenges. It is incredibly hard to distil down leadership as a course or a secret sauce. Real leadership is forged through everyday experiences, real leaders are often born by living through the metaphorical fire of crises – small, big and disastrous.

So how do you instruct someone in the science and art of leadership? Joseph L. Badaracco, Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, has an interesting approach. In his book “Questions of Character” Badaracco uses protagonists from literature to examine well-rounded, complex pictures of leaders in all walks of life.

The lawyer who commits an undetectable crime in I Come as a Thief, a novel by Louis Auchincloss, is an excellent warning about the influence of success and the dangerous undercurrents that come with it. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a brilliant study on the need for adaptability in the face of change, something any leader in our times would appreciate. One of the thinnest lines a leader is often asked to walk is between principles and pragmatism – Antigone, the ancient Greek play by Sophocles finds its parallels in today’s leaders who are sometimes unable to master their own dogmatism.

Literature does not shine a happiness cannon on our world, it doesn’t give leaders the “seven-step program to success” or a burst of motivational bravado. Instead it chronicles struggles, choices and sometimes, failures. It shows how humans climb out of difficult situations and face the world around them, the world in all its beauty and gore. That’s what a real leader needs to learn, and for that – we recommend this book.

You can find more of our recommendations on leadership here.

Some tips and some tricks

The two main concerns we’ve heard since we started the Reading Retreat is – how do I make time for reading? How do I get more out of what I read? There are many tips and tricks for these two problems, and it often takes some trial and error to find the one that works for you specifically, but let me continue to share some that have worked for us:

  1. Choose one thing to give up – Warren Buffet has attributed his success to reading copiously and admitted to reading 600-1000 pages daily when he began his career as an investor. When asked how he does it, his answer was, “It is a top priority.” While many people would like to be well-read, most don’t allocate time or priority to the activity of reading. In the book, Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits Of Wealthy Individuals Tom Corley studies the daily activities of 233 rich people and 128 poor people over 5 years. He found that 67 percent of rich people watch TV less than one hour a day. The intent here is not to say don’t watch TV, but I used the example because TV is the most commonly cited reason people don’t read. If you examine your own day, what is it that you are going to give up in your day-to-day routine to make room for reading? For me, it was scanning the news endlessly and playing computer games (especially games meant for 6-8 year-olds) – now with the lockdown, there was significant risk that these two unproductive activities would naturally take over the time freed up by lack of commute and social activities. It took some deliberate planning (and this reading retreat) to reroute that time to reading.
  2. Use multiple formats – I must admit, I am still experimenting with this. I often have an ebook version and a physical book version of the same book – it helps for some books,  doesn’t work for some. I almost always have multiple versions of the ebooks I am reading in all my devices and I switch seamlessly between my phone, tablet and computer when I read (if you use Kindle app, it syncs automatically, joys of technology!). The one I use less, but might work well for you, is to use audio versions too. When I am cooking, driving or folding the laundry, I like to switch to an audio book. I am still figuring out how to do that seamlessly within a same book, but what works for now is that I have 3-4 books I am reading in parallel in any given period, and at least one of them is an audio book, which allows me to “read” in any context. Try it out, having a good read at hand always (and multiple formats make this possible) can make a real difference in how much you read.
  3. What is in it for me? – Previously, we talked about making each book your own. This time, I am going to ask you to go one step beyond. After reading (or while reading) a book, reflect deeply on what the book means for you. We call this concept Applied Reading – when the purpose of reading is not just for information or entertainment but for insights, decision or action. It is not always a linear step from reading to action, but the approach of applied reading recommends that after every book or article you read, you take a pause to translate its relevance to your own personal life or situation. In our household, there are eight scissors, each placed close to the location where they are used most. And we have expensive designated containers for the things which are most likely to be displaced or lost. Both of these were changes I put in place based on recommendations from The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin, who applies cognitive psychology to everyday problems. This is just a small example, but I try and make sure there is at least one impact in my life from each book I read – whatever form it takes. So the next time you finish a book, ask yourself – what was in it for me?

We hope this inspires you to read and to lead, to take charge of your situation regardless of how out-of-control it feels like and to get more of your reading to help you be a leader, whether it be of an organization or your own life.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read for empathy

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

Have you ever wondered why we send criminals to prison? What is that we expect out of it? It is a deterrent and a punishment. But ideally, it should also decrease the likelihood of a criminal repeating the offence when they are out back in the real world – the technical term for repeat offending being recidivism.  A program called “Changing Lives through Literature” that started in 1991 has had one of the highest impacts in reducing repeat offences – by ~60%. The philosophy behind the program explains the humanizing effect of literature thus:

With literature, the imagination comes alive through an engagement with language…we experience a paradox: we begin to see other perspectives than our own and, at the same time, realize that we are not alone. A good story not only calls on us to exercise our minds, it asks us to reach deep into our hearts and evoke compassion for the characters, for each other, and for ourselves.

In other words, it helps us be more empathetic. But it is not just any words, there is a reason we seek out well-written books, beautiful literature, moving poetry. In a study published in Brain & Language, scientists show the transformative effect of metaphorical and evocative language (“shoulder responsibility” and “foot the bill” instead of “take responsibility” or “pay the bill”) on our brains.

When the world wakes up after this crisis, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all find it in ourselves to be a little bit more empathetic? To see the world through another’s eyes, to feel their pain and joy as much as we feel our own. No better way to start practicing this than reading good literature.

You are what you read, choose wisely

A book that helps us empathize with the world around us – something that touches our heart, stirs our mind and fires our spirit. I didn’t have to think too long to pick a recommendation for this Issue – “Essential Poems from The Staying Alive” is a compilation of 100 poems from the “Staying Alive Trilogy” that  consists of “Staying Alive,” “Being Alive” and “Being Human.” It is a wonderful collection that explores the human condition with gentle honesty and leaves the reader feeling less alone and more alive.

Choosing a book of poetry, I realize, has the potential to alienate those who may prefer prose over verse. But in a time where we tend to feel alone yet strapped for time (Yehuda Amichai’s words in this book: ‘A man doesn’t have time in his life / to have time for everything.’), I could not think of a better format to convey emotion, connection and truth in a concise and compelling form.

If you are new to poetry, this is a good introduction to contemporary poets around the world. If you are already a poetry aficionado, I bet this will bring you to unexplored terrains. For all of us, this is a poetry for our times.

You can find more of our poetry recommendations here.

Some tips and some tricks

Today I would like to suggest trying out the concept of mindful reading. Before you reject anything with the label of ‘mindful’ as just a fad, hear me out. At the heart of it, it is about suspending judgement, opening your curiosity, listening to your inner self, being present and aware and sharing with generosity. How do you apply that to reading? Here are my three tips and tricks:

  1. Make the book your own – I make copious notes and highlights when I read. If I read on a paper book, it will have sticky notes sticking out all over. Recently I have moved over to e-reading, where it is easier to highlight and comment. I love the process, where I slow down, I select passages or sentences, or sometimes just an interesting phrase and I mark it up to savour later. Often I leave a little remark on the thoughts those words inspired in me, sometimes I write out long passages then and there, which have made their way into my own writing later. It feels like a conversation, a rendezvous with the author, a shared moment of intimacy, and suddenly the book is not something a million people have read, but uniquely mine. My personal experience of reading mingled with the author’s work, to create something entirely new and my own.
  2. Share your thoughts – Our dinner conversations often revolve around books. With four voracious readers under one roof, someone always has something to share about what they are reading. These are the favourite moments of my day, where we get to share not just about books, but what it means for us. It doesn’t have to be just with your family, books can be a great way to get to know your friends and colleagues more deeply. In this age of social distancing, I would say go virtual – find your favourite digital hangouts and social forums – and share your thoughts generously.
  3. Match the book to your context – Mindfulness starts with self-awareness. Take the time to ask yourself, “what is it that my soul needs at the moment?” There is that one book that would give you solace, nourishment, joy. Don’t find the book, let the book find you. Serendipity does require some nudging sometimes. The way I nudge it along is by hoarding books, my bookshelves burst at the brim with unread books (and that is a good thing, I will write more about it later). In any case, I love the simple pleasure of browsing my (digital and physical) bookshelves, letting intuition take over and picking a book that feels just right, no judgement allowed.

We hope this helps you discover the joys of mindful reading, to open your hearts and minds to others through the window of words.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read with purpose

One trouble with developing speed-reading skills is that by the time you realize a book is boring, you’ve already finished it.

Franklin P. Jones

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

Anything done with clarity of purpose has a better chance of succeeding. That said, there is no reason any activity can’t serve more than one purpose. Reading can be your way to relax in stressful times, but it can also simultaneously move you towards your goals. That is easier if you know what those goals are.

Here’s an exercise for you. Below are ten reasons why people read. Prioritize your top 3:

  1. I read for fun
  2. I read to relax
  3. I read to deepen my knowledge about a specific topic (topic:…)
  4. I read to be a better person
  5. I read to develop breadth of understanding
  6. I read to understand different perspectives
  7. I read to fill my boredom
  8. I read to train my brain
  9. I read because I am on a reading retreat
  10. I read because….(fill in your own reason, if it is not above)

Remember the choices you made above – when you pick books to read, when you decide to skim a book or invest in slow reading, it always helps to check if your reading is serving your chosen purpose. Indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading outside your choices is human, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

You are what you read, choose wisely

Product design has always fascinated me. How did the iPhone become so ubiquitous? How did Apple amass a devoted following that few other companies can dream of? Many factors come into play, but their single-minded focus on design is one of them. Now imagine if you could design your own life using the same approach and principles of designing a beautiful product.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, professors at Stanford, teach a course called “Designing Your Life.” Stanford has taken an approach of human-centered design since 1950s, and the professors used the same methodology to help students lead a purposeful, well-lived and joyful life. Now that is available to a broader audience though this book.

I read this book at a time when I was trying to figure out the next “S-curve” of my life. A feeling of plateau and achievement had been seeping in, and it was time for the next challenge. Methodically working through this book helped me immensely to take stock of life, prioritize what is important and to methodically go about prototyping the changes I wanted to make, without plunging headlong into possibly disastrous decisions. Since then I have also used the techniques ad-hoc as needed, whenever I have had to make choices. As a bonus, you also get a view into the high-level process of how great products are designed, right from the professors who brought this to Silicon Valley.

Self-help books are dime a dozen, but quality self-help books are not. I loathe to use the word self-help mostly because of the poor quality you often find in this genre. That said, good books that help us thoughtfully nudge ourselves forward in our journey of self-awareness and development are immensely valuable. We have chosen a few which we have found useful through various periods of our lives, you can find out more about them here.

Some tips and some tricks

  1. Try out different reading styles – It is useful to be aware of different reading styles, and try some of them out. I personally use a mix of:
    • skimming (when I am not sure whether I should read something. I especially do this when I am trying out Kindle samples)
    • slow reading (when I am reading beautiful literature or poetry, where I savour each word like a sip from a warm cup of tea)
    • associative reading (when I seek out references mentioned, research on concepts referred and often other books by the same author)
    • deep research (when I start with a reading list and work methodically down the list of books and articles, often with notes accompanying)If I catch myself skimming a beautiful book, I try to slow down. If I find myself reading what should be skimmed, or browsing random news articles when I could use the time to do more purposeful reading, I time-box myself to ensure a limit to the less productive activity. Habits take time to change, but it is worth it, over the years I have noticed the effectiveness and efficiency of my reading improve.
  2. Abandon good books for great books – This is a contentious topic in my family. My father believes that leaving a book half-read is an act of offense towards the author. I sit on the opposite end of this spectrum. I found the best argument for my view in this article, where I particularly liked the quote from Patrick Collison, founder of Stripe:

    “At every moment, you should be reading the best book you know of in the world [for you]. But as soon as you discover something that seems more interesting or more important, you should absolutely discard your current book … because any other algorithm necessarily results in your reading ‘worse’ stuff over time.”

    Form your view on this, but I would say that there are gazillions of books out there – tell me, which ones do you plan to read in your one wild and precious life?
  3. Sandwich your reading – In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg reminds us that habits are not destiny. He has many suggestions for forming habits that we would like to have. One of my favourites is the sandwich approach, where you fit the habit you want to develop between two other activities that you do without fail. If you are like many people out there, who want to read but just can’t seem to find the time, I would suggest trying this out.

We hope this helps you step onto a path of purposeful reading. Try it out, you might like it more than you think.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!