“The person who stops studying merely because they have finished school is forever hopelessly doomed to mediocrity, no matter what their calling. The way of success is the way of continuous pursuit of knowledge.”
-From Think and Grow Rich
By Napoleon Hill
When asked what a “happy life” looks like, people often provide similar answers:
We want fulfilling careers and purposeful lives.
We want healthy bodies and clear minds.
We want strong relationships and thriving families.
We want sufficient resources and financial security.
Whereas all of us could easily describe our “happy life” … actually living that life is much more difficult. In fact, a recent poll indicated that only 14% of American adults report living “very happy” lives.
While pinpointing what brings happiness could be debated (this blog post takes a closer look), the reality is, most people want to improve their lives ... yet they have no blueprint for getting there.
I’ve got good news for you: The blueprint for achieving the life of your dreams is already written down somewhere waiting to be discovered.
“All of the books that we will ever need to make us as rich, as healthy, as happy, as powerful, as sophisticated, and as successful as we want to be have already been written,” said Jim Rohn in The Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle. “All of the insights that we might ever need have already been captured by others in books. The question is: In the last ninety days … how many books have we read?”
Unfortunately, leisure reading in America is at an all-time low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19% of Americans read for leisure. The average American reads 17 minutes a day, which pales in comparison to the amount of time spent on social media (127 minutes), watching television (120 minutes), and checking email (94 minutes).
Consider how you spend your time.
Are you committed to improving your life … or are consumed with following the lives of others?
If you think I’ve always enjoyed reading, you’re wrong.
I used to detest reading.
Here is the full list of assigned books I read from cover to cover from middle school through my masters degree:
Middle School: The Westing Game
High School: Of Mice and Men
College: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
That’s right. I read three books in nearly 15 years of formal education. “I don’t need to waste my time reading,” I stubbornly justified throughout the years. “I’m a smart person and have been successful in everything I’ve done. And what I don’t know, I’ll just learn through life experiences.”
It wasn’t until my 27th birthday when I finally discovered the power of reading. During my family birthday celebration at Texas Roadhouse, my dad gave me The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey as a present. Initially, I wasn’t thrilled about the book. “A book? What a waste!” I thought to myself as I politely smiled and showed the book to family members.
However - when I opened the book a few months later - I couldn’t believe how much helpful information was stored in one place. At this point in my life, I had accumulated a credit card bill of nearly $20,000. Mistakenly thinking that I was “building credit” and “doing what all Americans do”, I quickly realized that my spending philosophy was terribly misguided.
Rather than watch another episode of The Real World: Cancun or reorganize my Top 8 Friends on Myspace, I found myself flipping through the pages trying to learn more about personal finance. The knowledge I gained from The Total Money Makeover was a major turning point in my life, as I follow many of Ramsey’s financial principles to this day.
Another shift in my attitude toward reading happened in 2012 when I read What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker. At this point, I was in my 5th year as an assistant principal. Although I didn't mind being an AP, I had been turned down for several head principal job openings ... which had me second-guessing my leadership capabilities.
Whitaker’s book could not have come at a better time. Not only did I pick up several new ideas, the book also confirmed many of my thoughts about educational leadership. Countless times while reading I found myself thinking, “That's what I do! I knew that was right!” These realizations built my professional confidence and convinced me if I kept working on what I could control, the right opportunity would come.
Eventually, I realized that for every aspect of my life I wanted to improve - fitness, dieting, relationships, public speaking, mindfulness, writing, psychology - a template for success was already documented. It was up to me to seek out these books and to consume the information.
Listen: Humans have been recording their knowledge in books for more than 5,000 years. That means whatever you’re working on - whatever challenge you’re struggling with - is already covered in a book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Rather than attempt to master these areas on your own, why not get inside the minds of people who have already solved these problems?
I have been asked numerous times about my book reading habits. How often do you read? How do you take notes? What books do you choose? Below are eight of the most common questions, along with my responses:
What Books Do You Buy? My book-buying rule is simple: If you're thinking about getting a book, just buy it. Lifelong learners must approach a $25 book as though it has the potential to change their life. Don’t think of books as a cost … think of books as an investment. I didn’t read as much as I would have liked in 2021, but I still managed to spend $1,600 on new books (yes, I keep track).
Print Book vs. Ebook vs. Audiobook? Call me old-school, but I prefer reading print books over the more-modern options. The purpose of reading should be to retain information and put ideas into practice. Print books allow me to quickly take notes and mark sections that I want to revisit (my process is described below). To be clear - any reading is better than no reading - so choose the option that works best in your setting.
How Many Books Do You Read a Year? For a while, my goal was to read five or more books a month (60 in a year). More recently, I have focused on time spent reading per day as opposed to book numbers. I used to be so consumed with my "book count" that I found it very hard to quit a book I didn’t like. If you aren't finding value in a book, stop reading it. But to answer the original question, I read between 30 and 40 books a year.
How Do You Find Time to Read? A lot of people think that the above paragraph is crazy. “30 books a year? I'll never find the time!” Unfortunately, most people don't realize how much time they waste during the day. We all manage to find time to eat three meals a day, shower after working out, and brush our teeth before bed. Lifelong learners make reading a non-negotiable part of their life.
How Many Books Do You Read at a Time? I typically read between 4-5 books at a time. Having a variety of books allows me to select the book that matches my current mood. If I'm sick of thinking about about leadership, I'll start a motivational self-help book. If my workouts are feeling lethargic, I'll pick up a book on fitness or dieting. There's really no rhyme or reason to which book I pick up at a given point, I simply allow my inspiration to guide me.
How Do You Take Notes? I have unique - but efficient - format for note-taking that I call the “slash/bracket” format. When I’m reading a book and come across a section that I want to revisit at a later time, I put brackets around the section and put a slash at the top corner of that page. This system allows me to read several books at once because I can quickly leaf through the book and come back to the key points.
What Do You Do When You Finish a Book? Once a book is finished, I revisit all of the pages with slashes to determine if the bracketed information is good enough to make the book summary, which is stored on my website. Finally, all notes are dumped into a master spreadsheet where they are organized by theme. Having the passages organized this way allows me to easily revisit key ideas when trying to solve a problem or look for inspiration.
Do You Reread Books? Yes! Rereading books can be incredibly powerful. People who come back to a book after a long break often discover new insights that were previously missed. Why? Because perspectives change over time. Rather than treat books like renting a movie from Blockbuster (RIP), treat books of as a source of eternal reference.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares the following: “There’s no better way to inform and expand your mind on a regular basis than to get into the habit of reading good literature - you can get into the best minds that are now or have ever been in the world.”
The blueprint for living your happy life is already written; you just need to find it.
As the classic Reading Rainbow theme song goes: "Take a look. It's in a book."
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