How often have you said: “No I haven’t read it. I’ve been meaning to though!”
I started making a list of books to read my junior year in college in Evernote.
“What a useful tool. I’ll start a list of books to read here and just delete the note after I’ve read them!”
As of last night, that list is now sitting at a cozy 527.
I was doing my New Year planning this week and in spite of all my resolutions to do less, I had a moment where I decided I would try and beat out my usual 50-60 books a year.
“I’ll double it, I thought! 100 books! I’ll read an hour in the morning in addition to an hour in the afternoons. I‘ll get in bed sooner to read more before I fell asleep. I’ll block out four hours on Sundays.”
I was using reading more as a way to avoid the harder decision of figuring out what’s worth reading. Every book I read generates at least two new books for my to read list and there’s always someone that reads more than you so if you aren’t in it the game to keep reading, you might as well get out now, you’re doomed.
While I do suspect I’ll read more this year, what’s both more important and more valuable as my reading list continues to expand is figuring out what’s worth reading and how to read. Instead of planning to double my reading, a more useful exercise was to figure out how to prioritize my reading.
When I sat down to think about it, I realized was that I’d actually developed a pretty decent system for it that I’d never made explicit.
Reading Tips: The 80/20 Principle And Your Reading List
My biggest breakthrough when it came to choosing books came from reading the appendix of Perry Marshall and Richard Koch’s 80/20 Sales and Marketing.
What does the appendix of a sales and marketing book have to do with reading books?
It was the first time I fully understand how the 80/20 principle and power laws work. And the 80/20 rule, is really, really powerful.
80/20, fractals, and power laws are more or less synonymous and all apply to the same phenomenon which states:
for any non-biological system, the distribution of output follows a power law curve.
Non-biological systems are all the ones that anyone cares about – sex, wealth, friendships, and of course, reading books. So while it wouldn’t apply to height distribution (biological), it would apply to say income distribution and mate selection which are the only reason anyone cares about their height in the first place.
We don’t intuitively understand this because both our instinct and schooling teaches us to think in bell curves. In the book, Perry Marshall uses the example of a science class. Say you have two hundred students in a science class, a school would typically score them on a bell curve like such:
This isn’t very helpful for making decisions though. If we were to plot the raw science capability of someone in that class, which would be useful if you wanted to actually make a decision: hire them, invest in their company or give them a scholarship, it would be fractal. 20% of the students would have 80% of the science capability.
1. Build Your To-Read List
Books work the same way as students in a science class. Just as you don’t know which students are the brightest walking around a school building, you don’t know which books will be the best, so step one is to build a really big reading list, an anti-library of books you haven’t read yet.
One common mistake people make applying the 80/20 to any domain is they try to use it as an additive phenomenon instead of a subtractive one. How do we 80/20 our marketing without any sales? In any complex domain, you don’t know what is going to work. You can start with best practices, but it’s not until you test everything and throw out the 80% that you can get down to the core 20% that creates results.
The more recommendations for your anti-library, the better. If you’re less than a few thousand books into your reading career like me, the most valuable books are almost certainly the ones you haven’t read yet. I actively solicit book recommendations for my anti-library.
2. Filter: The Lindy Effect and Smart Haters
Let’s say you get to 1000 books on your to-read list to read over the next few years and you wanted to optimize for the utility of those books. Utility can be whatever you want, enjoyment from romance novels, actionable ideas from business book, intellectually stimulating philosophy. Regardless, the distribution follows the same power law distribution.
The total utility of the top 200 books is greater than the following 800. The area of the graph between 1 and 200 is greater than the area between 200 and 1000.
The issue then becomes because everyone’s reading tastes are a little different, how do you figure out which books fall in your top 200?
After someone recommends a book to me, I’ll first peek at the product page in Amazon and read the synopsis to see if it’s something that would seem interesting.
If it looks interesting, I have two heuristics for filtering out books before I’ll add them to my list:
On Smart Haters: Must Have Intelligent Negative Amazon reviews.
If it didn’t rattle someone enough to read it and write an intelligent bad review it probably doesn’t say anything interesting and can safely be skipped. Intelligent negative reviews mean the concept was contrarian and well thought out enough for someone to read the book and then take half an hour and write a reasoned critique. This seems to filter out a lot of books that should have been 20 pages long and got expanded to 250 for marketing reasons.
The Lindy Effect: Nothing Written in the last 5 Years (Unless 3 Trusted Readers Recommend It)
For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy. So the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live.
The best filtering heuristic, therefore, consists in taking into account the age of books and scientific papers. Books that are one year old are usually not worth reading (a very low probability of having the qualities for “surviving”), no matter the hype and how “earth-shattering” they may seem to be.
-NN Taleb, Antifragile
Taleb’s heuristic has served me well, for avoiding getting caught in the book marketing hype.
Yet, there are paradigm shifting books that come out more recently. I handle the FOMO by making an exception for books that readers I trust recommend to me. Antifragile and Zero to One are exceptional books I’ve read in the past couple of years. In both cases, I had at least 3 friends recommend them passionately.
Have a Group of Trusted Readers
My other filter is a small handful of people, precisely five, who know me and my reading tastes exceptionally well and recommend at most 1-2 books per year to me. If they’re reading 50+ books a year and they only recommend 1-2 of them to me then odds are, I’ll like it.
3. Pick a Book: From Reading List to Recliner
At this point, I’ve got a list of curated books recommended by people I know and filtered for marketing hype. Seeing as that list is currently approaching six hundred, there’s still some deciding to be done.
Match the book to the Context.
In my experience, the utility of a book is always context dependent. If I’m in the mood for fiction, it doesn’t matter how good the business book is, I won’t like it.
I like to read business and non-fiction on weekdays, narrative and history at night, and philosophy and strategy on the weekends so those are the three sections of my anti-library.
For me, the business/non-fiction is “just-in-time reading.” It’s something relevant to what I’m working on right now. If I’m working on a big marketing campaign, I’ll dive into my marketing anti-library to see what’s waiting.
I’m writing a book at the moment so pretty much all my just-in-time reading is about concepts in the book or about writing and publishing businesses.
The strategy and philosophy books I tend to read on the weekends or if I’m in a big planning phase like at the end of year or quarter.
The biographies and narrative I tend to read at night eating dinner, running errands or going for a walk when my mind is too worn out for business.
Heck Yes or No
At this point, I’ll go through my filtered anti-library and pick whatever I feel heck yes about.
Because I filtered out all the recent books, good marketing usually won’t suck me in at this point, there has to be something about the book inherently and what I’m thinking or working on to draw me in so at that point the best heuristic is whatever I’m most excited about.
What’s Whispered is What Matters
In the end though, the biggest thing I’ve taken away from all the books I’ve read though hasn’t been from one individual book. It’s the meta ideas and trends that run through time periods and industries, the ones that are whispered and not explicitly said.
After I’d read half a dozen sales books, I realized perhaps the biggest differentiator between good salesmen and bad ones is that really good sales people believe in their product like crazy. I had an “a-ha” moment when I finished reading Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale because all I wanted to do after reading the book was buy stainless steel cookware.
Zig learned to sell by doing door-to-door sales for a stainless steel cookware company and so half of the examples in the book are of selling cookware. The 250+ closing lines Ziglar gives in the book are secondary to the fact that Ziglar truly believed everyone on Earth would be better off with a set of stainless steel cookware. You can feel it reading the book.
I got dramatically better at sales after I had that realization. It was more important to sell myself on the product and understanding its’ value and importance than any particular tactic. The closing lines are helpful, but secondary.
If you read a thousand books, the most valuable thing you take away won’t be anything the author says, but what they whisper.
Last Updated on July 28, 2020 by Taylor Pearson