Same Books = Same Ideas
Three improvements to your reading to develop distinct ideas
When it comes to reading for self-improvement, we commonly feel they have to read the latest hit. We have to keep up. We must read the newest business, marketing, productivity, writing or design book because we wonder (hope? pray?) it’ll contain a Holy Grail to supercharge our work.
Did you read Atomic Habits? So did more than 5,000,000 people.
Did you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck? So did more than 8,000,000 people.
Did you read Tools of Titans? So did … literally everyone.
Two curious effects emerge in looking at these super-bestsellers. You likely don’t even need to read these books. You can save the money and time. (Although you may want to use a service like Blinkist to quickly consider the highlights.) Instead, fast forward a year or even only six months. The business or design or marketing culture around you has already absorbed the lessons from those books. By then, you’ll breathe it in every day without even realizing it.
When you read a book that millions of other people have read, how exactly does reading it make you different from everyone else?
How does it improve your thinking in a way that will distinguish you in your world?
If we want to differentiate ourselves, we must confront different ideas from the rest of our world. Let me offer three ways we can alter our reading to achieve that goal.
1/ Read unknown modern books
One way to face different ideas is by reading unknown or unheralded contemporary authors. The economist, professor, writer and podcast host Tyler Cowen exemplifies this approach. In his daily newsletter, Marginal Revolution, he occasionally shares his recent readings. In most cases, I've never even heard of any of the books he's been reading. His latest readings include books on: 1970s Ireland; a biography of Winslow Homer; the Chevron Doctrine; a biography of Jacob Taubes; and Russian avant-garde art.
His exposure to these ideas – including minor particulars of history, character and psychology – has led to an astonishing career. He’s written or co-authored more than a dozen books himself, including perhaps the most engaging textbook in any subject. To me he writes the single most arresting newsletter out there. (And he publishes daily!) He asks incisive, original questions of his eclectic set of podcast guests.
Yes, Cowen has talent and a rare amalgam of traits. But he sharpens his sword by his unique approach to reading – a huge array of subjects, written by unheralded contemporary writers.
2/ Read old books
Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for the good ole college days of reading Plato, Augustine, Cicero, Boethius, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and William James. It’s more than a soft spot, though. Those authors – of books more often bought than read today – reveal penetrating wisdom to us in the 21st century.
These authors tended to have an aptitude in examining the nuances of human life. And helping us navigate those often concealed undercurrents of life.
Day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.
Do these seem like the ways we might characterize citizenship today? What made your spirit soar as you read? What made your skin crawl? Should we raise our sons and daughters to adhere to this sense of patriotism? If so, why? If not, how might Thucydides still inform, and improve, our own judgment about citizenship for the benefit of our children?
When did you last ponder your own ideas around patriotism? Did you find much to aid these considerations in Tools of Titans?
Reading different books leads to contemplating different ideas.
That was only one example. For a take on a business issue, I’ve tried to apply lessons from Plato to selling today.
To Socrates’s point, many salespeople sell products they don’t believe in. The adage in sales is that you have to believe in the product you sell. Contrary to that maxim, many salespeople succeed in sales despite not believing in the product. Taking Socrates’ argument to these modern-day orators, he would question whether they do right or wrong by such actions. He would caution them in selling products that customers do not need or that they do not themselves believe in. He would even suggest they are putting their souls at risk when they do so. Most businesspeople do not think their work affects their souls, or others’s, in their daily routines. Plato’s rejoinder to that complacency warrants their careful reconsideration.
Ultimately, this may or may not be a good idea. But reading Plato brought up a radically different supposition about sales than I’d considered before.
3/ Book mash-ups
A third way we can improve our reading is by reading multiple books, with the central purpose of reflecting the ideas of one book into the other. In doing so, we put the Anchoring and Recency Biases to work for us.
We can select books closely related or in completely different fields. It is a useful exercise to ponder the lessons of two or more books from one author. Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and his Envisioning Information build upon one another.
Take it a step further. If a book reminds you in any way of a second book you previously read, go back and re-read that second book. Purposefully cull through the two books together – and you’ll notice new, richer, more textured insights come to the fore.
We can do this exercise with new books or old, or a mix. In a previous issue, I mashed-up two of my favorite books: Natural Born Heroes and Deep Work. It was also instructive to mash-up six biographies to see what new ideas emerged. Even more, I had fun.
I’m not necessarily saying not to read the latest hot sellers. I read some of them, and they can offer some useful inputs to my thinking. Rarely do they give me ideas divergent from ones offered by other people I work with and interact with. If you want to stand out, you must develop different ideas about the world or your work. Reading can play a critical role in that creation process. But unique notions will only emerge if you are reading distinct books or reading books with an atypical angle on your analysis.
Yes, this effort takes time. Yes, it is intellectually taxing. Yes, it takes thought. Remember what we’re after though: different ideas from what everyone around you is thinking. Isn’t that worth some effort?