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How to Succeed: Read Everything, Forget Nothing.

July 29, 2008
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When I was in school, a roommate once said with a smile, "Studying is easy. Just read everything and forget nothing."

That was obviously a joke, or a recipe for anxiety. I immediately (or at least after a while) understood the reality that I couldn't read everything.

'Read Everything, Remember Everything' was out-of-reach, but the external expectations in school were reasonable.

Now we have the Internet and hypertext and browsers that encourage tabbed browsing and customized home pages loaded with gadgets full of neat content and Google and Amazon and Wikipedia and links.

"Reading Everything," when you initiate to research something on the web, produces a literal explosion of source material.

I think the MBTI STs among us carry a lot of guilt because we're hopelessly behind in our reading, and, paradoxically, in this new world, the more we read, the further behind we get. So, the best strategy to catch up and avoid the guilt is to 'Read Nothing.'

Where on earth did this post come from? Recently, I asked some of my brightest friends who work in healthcare to read something I wrote; a few told me, as a matter of principle (or time management), they don't read. Ironically, that seemed to make them feel guilty as well!

Do you have smart friends in our industry who boast that they don't read? What's going on with that?



Here's an e-mail exchange I had with Joe that we both thought would be good to share:

&gt Listen to Manager-tools recent audio podcasts, titled, "The MySpace
&gt Cast - Part [1|2] of 2", 7/14/2008 and 7/19/2008. That's where I
&gt would draw my best advise from. If you're not connected to manager-
&gt tools, I predict you'll be blown away by how good it is. The guys are
&gt Mike and Mark Mark shares his experience and mentoring, kind of
&gt 'naked conversations' (I assume you've read) style. Mike facilitates
&gt and makes it a conversation.
&gt Do you commute in to your NY offices? The reason I ask is that
&gt podcasts seem to work great for people who have obligate commute time,
&gt either by car or train. People with short or no commutes often have a
&gt hard time fitting this in, unless they can listen on a treadmill,
&gt airplane or similar on a regular basis. Manager-tools podcasts
&gt average 20 minutes long (they are audio) and the length is based on
&gt listener characteristics, including typical commute time block sizes.
&gt There are lots of practices related to social networking that I've
&gt learned, and sources. There's a few distinct angles as well. It's an
&gt important topic and one that is getting a lot more focus in the last 5
&gt years. I tend to start with HBR for my framework.
&gt -Joe

&gt On Jul 31, 2008, at 4:14 PM, Guerra, Anthony wrote:
&gt You may find this interesting, but I specifically do not listen to
&gt an Ipod, read the paper, book, or anything else during the 40 minute
&gt bus ride into the city, because I want time to think, to let my mind
&gt go over issues and problems and see what I come up with.
&gt I find often that I'm typing notes into my blackberry so I don't lose
&gt the good ideas I come up with.
&gt I think that, to some degree, you have to water the ground, fertilize
&gt it, then step back and see what grows.

&gt That is interesting.
&gt I wonder if and how that would change, if you were driving (which is
&gt what I'm doing when I listen to the iPod).
&gt I do understand the 'stepping back' and see what grows concept. I
&gt think that, like reading and exercise, contemplation is one of the
&gt first things that goes. Along with meditation (deliberately thinking
&gt about nothing.)

Wow. Great thoughts (consider the source use social network to reduce reading burden) and great, witty insights (met my staff, the bacon double cheeseburger, ... and the best, no-offense to the others, "Conscientious objectors in this information onslaught"). I'm blessed by brilliant reader/writers.

I, too, have to really discipline myself to slog through reading stuff that's obviously relevant. A couple of years ago, in reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, it took all my strength and time management skills. It paid and continues to pay huge dividends.

I'm currently reading "Naked Conversations" about the ropes of smart blogging. Good blogging really is about conversations. So, back to me, for a moment...

First, a confession. I deliberately "painted with a broad brush." No one actually said they don't read. Different people said different things that were interesting. To Ed and David's points above, their message to me was often understood not to be taken literally. Here are a few:

- I dont read blogs
- I dont read the newspaper(s)
- I dont read popular business books
- I dont read beyond the first 3 lines of any email, without a compelling reason
- I dont read the user manual (I'm throwing that in for fun they're often not designed to be read)
- "It must be nice to have time to read" (that one is especially loaded)

Time constraints make such policy decisions critical. Anthony made that point best, with executable advice. Thanks.

That said, there are so many critical insights that I've arrived at through expeditionary reading. That is, not related to completing ones direct work, such as looking for a treatment for the patient in front of you.

The "I dont read XXX" policies, IMHO, need to be tempered. Reading, it's sources, and delivery vehicles might need to be an information dietary thought. Regular meals, appropriate portions, diversity, and exercising [using what we read] needs to be conscious. Fasting, for an extended period of time is probably not a favored strategy. Said more forcefully, "So your strategy is Information Starvation?"

Following on Anthony's lead (bringing the point home), smart blogs, done well could be a healthy part of a balanced information diet lots of us are striving to make that true.

The short answer to your question, Joe, is "no" I can't recall a colleague ever stating that they never read, let alone boast about it. In fact, the concept of "not reading" is so unnatural to me that I find myself immediately trying to rationalize the circumstances of its utterance. For instance, maybe they really intended to provoke a reaction or challenge an assumption, sort of like ordering a bacon double cheeseburger at a Vegan convention just to see what happens but not reading ... anything? ... that's just crazy talk!

On the other hand, most of my colleagues (myself included), would agree that we don't read enough, or that there's too much to read, or that we are hopelessly behind in our reading.

Reflecting on my own circumstances, I have to conclude that reading for me is, and probably always has been, a zero-sum game. I read as much or more today than ever, but the characteristics have changed dramatically over time. Much of my reading today is task oriented and driven by immediate needs to treat a patient or solve a limited problem, you could think of it as "tactical" reading. Much less of my time is available for the kind of reading that builds, maintains, and modifies the knowledge base that informs the mental models I use to do my work, "strategic" reading in a sense. Frankly, at this time I'm probably 95% tactical and 5% strategic in my reading, which is why I feel like I don't make much progress, I can't perceive much change in my thinking because I'm not adding much to my core understanding.

Finally, back to those who don't read ... as Sun-Tzu cautioned, if strategy without tactics is the longest road to victory, and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat maybe those who don't read are the conscientious objectors in this information onslaught?

Joe, I'm on the same page, no pun intended, with Anthony. In general, the source makes the difference, although I must admit a good headline or title often influence me. But in the end, a credable source makes all the difference.

Hey Joe,

I think your dilemma which we all face is best solved with a "consider the source" approach. For example, I'm sent plenty of articles, pitches and other types of information and I can't possibly read it all. So, naturally, I consider who is sending, from there I give the item a certain amount of attention, discarding most and absorbing information from senders. You recently gave me a book to read called "management of the absurd" (I guess you've met my staff :)) Anyway, I have almost finished reading it, and reading a book is quite an investment of time. That tells you just as much about how I feel about your ability to identify solid, useful information as it does about my interest in the subject matter. I invested in the information because it had both criteria necessary it was of interest to me and it came from a trusted source. Not to bring this back to HCI, but that's what I always work to make sure we maintain that level of trust with readers that makes them willing to invest their time in our work.

It is common to hear the lament, "I don't have time to read", and not, "I don't choose to read." I tend to think that both statements tell the same story. I have to plan to read or I don't have time either. That said, I do have a list of reasonable people that I call when I need help. Being pointed toward what or who should be read on any topic sure saves a lot of noodling around on the internet.