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How I discover and read books

Books are f--king awesome! They let you spend time with the greatest thinkers in the world - even the dead ones! All for the cost of $10. Of all the ways to learn new stuff, books are my favourite.

With that introduction it should be no surprise that I read a lot. Most years I go through about 30-60 books 📚. I’ve gotten close to 100 books in some years, but that seemed to exceed my capacity to absorb new knowledge.

In this post, I’ll share my experiences learning through books and provide a few tips that helped me.

Finding my love of reading

I started reading books as a kid. First by spending time in the worlds of Enid Blyton, Tolkien, Goodkind and Feist. It took until the end of high school to expand my taste beyond fantasy. Next up was philosophy. It started with Atlas Shrugged and continued into the rest of Western philosophy. The Socratic dialogues were particularly impactful in building my curiosity about the world

My relationship with reading had a dramatic change in 2011. After finishing my engineering degree, I joined a few friends to start a company called JourneyApps. At the time we knew very little about building a company. The South African startup ecosystem was still very small back then and we struggled to find a mentor. Instead, we turned to the only source of knowledge that was available to us: books.

We read dozens of books about startups, marketing, sales, product development and management. Coming from a base of almost zero practical knowledge, each book was a revelation to us. Despite being 16,000km away from Silicon Valley we had access to the same ideas that they had. And the best part was, they worked!

Since then reading to learn has become my superpower 💪

How I find good books

Finding books worth reading is hard. There are thousands of books on each topic and most of them suck. It can easily take 8 hours to finish a book, so you want to know upfront if a book is good or not.

Over time I’ve developed a few methods for identifying good books:

  • Whenever I talk to another founder I ask them for book recommendations. If it sounds interesting I add it to my Goodreads profile.
  • I follow a lot of like-minded people on Goodreads. When I see someone on my feed leave a 5-star review I immediately add it to my to-read list.
  • I only read books with a rating of 4 or higher on Goodreads (with a few exceptions). I also read through the top reviews on Amazon and Audible.
  • I look for recommendations from famous people I admire. These include Patrick Collison, Tim Ferris, Bill Gates and Naval Ravikant.
  • I look for the influences of my favourite authors. For example, Thomas Sowell lead me to read Friedrich Hayek. David Deutsch got me onto Karl Popper.

Caveat: If you're struggling to build a habit of reading regularly I would suggest you start with whatever books you find most enjoyable - even if those books are mental junk food. You need to learn to read before you can read to learn 😉

Books are the highest ROI investment you can make

I estimate I’ve spent around $10,000 on books and audiobooks in my lifetime. At first glance, this sounds like a lot. But it’s the best money I’ve ever spent. Courses and universities can set you back as much or more while delivering very little value in comparison.

Compulsive book buying may be the only shopping addiction that earns you money over time. A well-stocked home library is an open invitation to read. Patrick Collison explains this philosophy quite well:

I  find it useful to buy a lot of books that seem interesting and high quality before I’m necessarily ready to read them at that moment. Maybe I’ll read a couple of chapters or something but not really commit to finishing it. But I’ll leave it out around the house. There are books on the bookshelves. There are books on the kitchen table. There are books beside the couch. There are books in my bedroom. I often find that a few months later, something happens. And you realize, “Oh, man. I really should get back to whatever book it is. - Patrick Collison

Beating boredom and maintaining momentum

Sometimes you just need to take a break from a book. Maybe it got a bit boring or perhaps you’re just in the wrong headspace. Either way, it breaks your flow and you end up not reading for a few days. At some point I realised I’d be able to read way more books if I just never stopped reading. My solution was simple: read or listen to multiple books at the same time.

I usually read 3 books at any one point in time. When I get bored of one I just switch to another for a while. That way I solve the boredom problem without having any “downtime”. I’m deliberate about the selection of books I pick. The books are typically in different genres and almost always includes one book that isn't too serious (e.g. a fantasy novel).

I also give myself permission to stop a book if it’s shit or skip through parts I don't find interesting. Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. There are thousands of great books - way more than you’ll ever get a chance to read. So if reading a particular book feels like a chore then just stop and pick up something else.

Audiobooks turn dull tasks into learning opportunities

My favourite way to consume books is by listening to them. I listen to audiobooks all the time! When I’m walking my dog. Driving to work. Cooking dinner. Working out. Anytime I’m doing something that doesn’t require me to apply my brain is a chance to listen to a book.

AirPods is particular have been a game-changer for me because it’s so convenient to pop them in and listen for a few minutes. With the barrier that low I find I have lots of time each day to make progress on my books.

Anyone that listens to a lot of audiobooks has spent some time playing around with the listening speed. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last 7 years:

  • Initially I struggled to concentrate at 1x speed because my thoughts kept drifting. Keeping your attention focused on an audiobook is quite similar to learning to meditate.
  • I eventually found I could get to up to 2.5x on certain books. This requires absolute concentration and honestly isn’t very pleasant.
  • I have found my sweet spot to be 1.4-1.5x for most non-fiction and 1.6-1.7x for fiction.
  • In order for me to retain knowledge, I need to actually think about it. So I regularly take micro-breaks to think through concepts or make notes.

Integrating knowledge

I’ve found the best way to integrate the new knowledge is to write about it and talk to people. In particular, I love trying to teach what I’ve learned because the process points out where my gaps are. Filling those gaps usually involves reviewing key chapters in the book.

We have regular book clubs at OfferZen and I've found those discussions to be particularly useful for cementing ideas. I would recommend every startup to have a book club!

Often I’ll start a book at some point and maybe revisit it months or, in some cases, even years later and find that it has a completely renewed resonance or significance or something. I think with books, there’s really something around reader-book fit and the particulars of that moment. - Patrick Collison

I have found massive value in going through good books more than once. For instance, I’ve recently completed The Beginning of Infinity for the 4th time and still found it to be incredibly insightful.

Closing thoughts

If you want to know what my favourite books are then check out my Goodreads profile. I’d also appreciate any book recommendations from you, so please hit me up on Goodreads 🙏