Actually, maybe you don’t really know how to read

Elena Chen
9 min readJan 11, 2017
Source: Bornrich

Imagine there is a smart and confident guy who gave a diamond ring to a beautiful young lady. Interestingly, this guy didn’t bother to speak to her again in a year time. One day, he decided to propose to her and was confident that his attractiveness and generosity would earn him a big YES. However, it turned out that she turned him down. Instead of talking to this lady, he gave more expensive diamond rings to more ladies to increase his chance of success while still not keeping contact with any of them afterwards. No surpsie. Everyone said no to his other belated proposals.

I know it’s a weird story but that’s how many of us handle our reading. We believe we are smart and don’t need to follow up with the ladies (books we read). We invest a lot in diamond rings (our money and time spent on one-time reading) and believe the more the better. Until one day, we realize that our investment doesn’t pay off at all because we cannot recall almost anything we have read, which is just like a book’s rejection to our proposal.

The idea of this example is that reading is not consumption but investment. So is relationship. Consumption is a one-time activity with very constrained scope. You pay HKD36 for a cup of coffee from Starbucks and just for a cup of coffee from Starbucks. However, you can be creative about making investment. You can decide how much chips to be put into the game and when and how to put them in; and most importantly, the pay-off is not linear but exponential.

Do you believe that very often we invest more in brunch than books? I am sure you must know what are the great brunch places in town because you have been there many times and keep recommending to your friends. But do you still remember what books you have read last year? Can you talk about those books to your friends in a straightforward and interesting way? We very often take pictures of our food and share with friends. We constantly check if there is any other good food besides brunch in one restaurant and if there are better brunch places nearby. We seldom do that with books. We just buy one, read it and let ourselves forget about it while proudly counting and claiming how many books we have read. That’s not reading. That’s consumption or, simply, collection.

I have always wanted to write about “effective reading” or “effective learing”. Reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” lately makes me feel that I should do it now.

I. What to read

Reading is such a colossal topic and I wouldn’t even try to cover all areas of literacture. To me and maybe some of you, reading serves the following purposes. 1) To grasp general, usually entry-level, knowledge. For example, we can read Introductory Western Architecture to have a general idea about different type of buildings so that we won’t look like a complete layman on our trip to Europe next week. 2) To find solutions to your problems. Usually this type of reading is very task-oriented, for example, for your dissertation or report. 3) To read because you just love this book. To me, “Lean In” is one of them and so are many autobiographies. I just love reading people’s life stories and looking for different perspectives.

II. When to read

I am a big opponent to bed-time reading. Lying on your bed won’t make you understand what’s in the book and may even make you too excited to fall asleep. We should read when we are in our best mood and have the most energy. I have to admit that reading is a very energy consuming activity, much more than watching a movie or a TV drama. If you are not in the right condition, your books won’t like you. You end up just reading the words but not the books.

III. Where to read

Anywhere (but not on your bed)! I was fascinated by Emma Watson’s book hiding idea because it’s just so important to read wherever you can especially if you travel a lot or have long commute time. The comfortable seating in a train in Europe is a wonderful place to read but you may challenge what about the one in Beijing which makes everyone like canned sardines!

No worries, we have audio books, which make our reading life much easier. First things first, I have to say that audio books are not for everyone. It depends on your dominant learning style. The 3 most common learning styles are Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (People who are kinesthetic need movement, such as using color highlighters or playing lively music, to get themselve up and moving while reading). I am equally good at visual and auditory when reading books but completely visual when memorizing names or numbers. Also, audio books are only good for books that have few jargons, that are available in languages you are very good at, and lastly but most importantly, that you want to read through the entire book.

I personally read audio books mostly for the third type, i.e. those I just love to read. The first type usually has too many jargons and also I may not want to read every word. The second one is mostly researching so obvoiusly not a good idea to use audio books.

Reading audio books can save you a lot of time. For example, the audio book for “Lean In” is 6 hours and 27 mins in length. I downloaded the book last Saturday morning. I listened to it when I was doing my laundry, on my way to different places, warming up at the badminton court, waiting at the hair salon and chilling on my sofa during my food coma time. I didn’t plan time to sit down seriously and read this book but I have already finished this 230-page book in five days.

IV. How to read

I guess this is probably one of the most important questions among all listed here. There is no clear-cut answer and it really depends on the book. It’s very much like dating a girl or guy. There is no “best” way per se and you just need to tailor for everyone. And same for every book. If I have to generalize, I would say for the three types of books I mentioned above:

1) To grasp general knowledge: Just skim through but please please please take notes. Otherwise, you will forget almost everything very quickly and if you don’t bother read it again, you will probably end up with very little knowledge saved down in your long-term memory. Don’t just underline unless you are pretty sure that you will read this book again, which is rarely the case. Notes can be simple or lengthy and a knowledge tree is the best way to organize scattered information. It looks nerdy at first sight but will benefit you a lot in the long run.

2) To find solutions to your problems: Be result-oriented and don’t lose yourself in the irrelevant details. It happens to many people including myself at the beginning as I can be distracted by huge volume of “valuable” information so easily that I almost forget why I am reading this book in the first place. If you do find some interesting ideas that you want to dive into, drop the page number on your notebook and come back to it after your research.

3) To read because you just love this book: Find every possible way to appreciate the book, note down your fresh ideas and discuss with people. If you love reading a book, there must be a reason. It can be the topic, the author, the language or even the book design. That reason is probably what you want to focus on as you start reading. For example, I started to read “Lean In” because a good friend of mine suggested that this is a great book for helping female succeed in the workplace. As I read it, there were quite some lines that I completely agree or disagree and I could support with live examples. I knew these ideas would disappear very quickly if I just hoped that I could remember them, so I dropped them down on my iPhone. Let me share a few interesting ones with you here.

  • Learn to sit at the front table not in the back seats
  • When you suspect that you are bound by gender bias, just ask yourself the question “How would the man respond to this situation?”
  • There is a strong negative correlation between success and likability for female
  • Keep a long-term career dream and an 18-month plan
  • Stop asking “Can you be my mentor?” without context because people whom you ask this question to will have no clue how they can be helpful to you
  • Don’t let the insecurity caused by your fear of things that don’t even exist force you to quit
  • There is nothing sexier than finding an equal partner. Equal relationship leads to happiness
  • Done is better than perfect
  • Making things public can increase the accountability and commitment

The next two things I would do is trying my best to quote these lines in my daily conversations and summarize the book to my friends. Both of them contribute to the internalization process, which turns reading from passive import to active export. Not to mention the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve here, context and application are critical in human learning. We need to learn in contexts: The book itself is one context but we need to create more from our daily life.

This is an example of creating context on the mentorship topic. Sheryl Sanberg says that “Mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship than it may appear, especially in situations where people are alerady working at the same company”, “Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions” and “The (mentor) lable itself is open to interpretation.” It reminds me of the extensive discussion I had with my colleagues about optimizing the mentorship program within my team and firm. Now the problem gets resolved easily. The manual pairing done by such mentorship program seldomly works because meaningful mentorship requires natural interaction based on real work. Sometimes mentoring goes on despite unawareness of both the mentor and the mentee. We should not focus our energy on the “mentor” title itself. When we have a problem that we cannot solve by ourselves, seeking help from the person who can best handle it is a form of mentoring. We should not unrealistically imagine some mentor who has time for excessive handholding and frankly I sometimes do, too.

Community can largely faciliate learning, especially social and emotional learning. You don’t have to join a reading club but forming your own reading circle is necessary. Ideally you want to find a group of people who would love to read the same books as you or, at least, are willing to listen to your sharing. It is your goal to talk about the book in a way such that without reading the book, your friend already knows the main idea and a few interesting examples. Summarizing forces you to do more thinking and helps you remember what you have read.

Similar to the brunch place example, a few other things that you can do after reading a book is to research the author’s background, explore other books written by the same person, and look for more books that discuss the similar topics. For example, after reading “Lean In”, I am interested to know the reason behind Sheryl Sanberg’s decision to leave McKinsey & Co. and how she mangaed to go through the difficult time as a single Mom after Dave passed away. I also want to know more about the NGO called she founded. Also, we can reflect on the structure of the book, the writing style or even naming of the book. I noticed that Sheryl Sanberg loves quoting reserch findings and statistics to make her points and they are indeed very powerful. She is also very good at story telling and usually starts every chapter with a simple but meaningful story. She has a strong sense of humor, e.g. comparing the ideal mentor in our imagination to a therapist and I just couldn’t think of a better metaphor. I also think that “Don’t be afraid of things that do not even exist” can be a more straighforward name for the current Chapter 7 “Don’t leave before you leave”. Connecting dotts can make reading much more meaningful and preserve your memory longer.

Confucius says, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” We just need to be a bit more mindful and creative about reading to make our time and effort really count.