Just about every super successful person you can think of, from Warren Buffett to Oprah Winfrey, has at least one thing in common — they are all big readers. Maybe that fact has inspired you to read more as well.
Good for you. But what you might not realize is that the smartest of the smart don’t just consume a lot of pages, they also develop systems and habits to extract the greatest possible value from those pages.
Both Bill Gates and Elon Musk have spoken about their approach to remembering more of what they read and putting those ideas to use. So has author, entrepreneur, and podcaster Tim Ferriss. “Great, you read a book. So what? How is it going to affect your behavior, or your beliefs, or actions?” he asks in a fascinating talk below (hat tip to Swiss Miss).
In the 20-minute deep dive into all his tricks and systems for squeezing actionable insight from his voraciously reading, he offers specific examples from some of his favorite books. The whole thing is well worth watching in full but if you want a quick guide to his essential advice, here are his top-line suggestions.
Like many folks, Ferriss reads with a pencil in hand (or, as I discuss below, a finger always at the ready to highlight his e-book). Taking notes is an essential first step to getting more out of what you read, but for Ferriss it’s only a first step.
To cement that knowledge and make it easily searchable later, he also jots down a quick index to his favorite passages on the blank spaces at the beginning of a book. Each entry contains a page number and a super brief note about what he found interesting or beautiful.
2. Star what you find useful.
To take your homemade indexes up to the next level, Ferriss suggests adding a system of stars. Ferriss uses stars in two ways. Sometimes they mark an idea he would like to experiment with in his own life. His example is trying out a different church each week, which he came across in John Steinbeck’s classic Travels With Charley.
Alternately, when he reads a “how to” type book in which, presumably, most of the ideas are action oriented, he’ll use a system of retrospective stars, going back after a few days or weeks to mark the ideas he found most useful.
His example is a definition of freedom from writing guide Writing Down the Bones: freedom isn’t doing whatever you want but instead means knowing who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing and then doing it. This idea of freedom in constraints keeps coming up in Ferriss’ life and therefore keeps earning stars.
3. Be an omnivore.
The books Ferriss discusses in the video range from explorations of the intersection of buddhism and psychiatry to sci-fi. He’s clearly a book omnivore and he urges others to read equally widely.
“I liberally will borrow from nonfiction to think about imaginary worlds and fantasy and fiction, and I will also borrow liberally from fiction, say Dune, and try to copy and paste lessons learned about leadership as an example into so-called real life,” he says. His very offbeat example? I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy : Renderings of Hafiz, surprisingly funny translations of a classic Persian poet as an example.
“I find a lot of thought-provoking questions can be embedded densely in poetry,” he claims.
Ferriss holds up a lot of extremely marked up dead tree books, so clearly he’s happy to read the traditional way, but he also notes that his Kindle can be a phenomenal tool for extracting and preserving insights from his reading.
The advantage of reading on some sort of device is that you can export your highlights to another program, such as Evernote, where you can star and annotate them further, as well as more easily search them. This means Ferriss can review in minutes books it took him hours to read.
5. Box out prospective next actions.
As a complement to his index and star system, Ferriss will also spotlight actions and experiments suggested by his reading by boxing them out next to his index.
For example, when he read In Pursuit of the Common Good, Paul Newman’s business memoir with A.E. Hotchner, Ferriss found the book to be full of great advice on using PR, jokes, and storytelling to drive brand awareness. He boxed out and borrowed some of these ideas for his work on the psychiatric uses of psychedelics, and ended up fundraising millions for research at Johns Hopkins.
“For the last two years, I’ve interviewed more than 200 world-class performers for my podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. The guests range from super celebs (Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.) and athletes (icons of powerlifting, gymnastics, surfing, etc.) to legendary Special Operations commanders and black-market biochemists. For most of my guests, it’s the first time they’ve agreed to a two-to-three-hour interview. This unusual depth has helped make The Tim Ferriss Show the first business/interview podcast to pass 100 million downloads.
“This book contains the distilled tools, tactics, and ‘inside baseball’ you won’t find anywhere else. It also includes new tips from past guests, and life lessons from new ‘guests’ you haven’t met.
“What makes the show different is a relentless focus on actionable details. This is reflected in the questions. For example: What do these people do in the first sixty minutes of each morning? What do their workout routines look like, and why? What books have they gifted most to other people? What are the biggest wastes of time for novices in their field? What supplements do they take on a daily basis?
“I don’t view myself as an interviewer. I view myself as an experimenter. If I can’t test something and replicate results in the messy reality of everyday life, I’m not interested.
“Everything within these pages has been vetted, explored, and applied to my own life in some fashion. I’ve used dozens of the tactics and philosophies in high-stakes negotiations, high-risk environments, or large business dealings. The lessons have made me millions of dollars and saved me years of wasted effort and frustration.
“I created this book, my ultimate notebook of high-leverage tools, for myself. It’s changed my life, and I hope the same for you.”
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