Do you know how to read? I certainly thought I did. I was a bit shocked to find out I didn’t, but also more than a little bit intrigued.

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Photo by Wendy van Zyl from Pexels

It was like an amazing Michelin 3-star meal, that I thought I had eaten, when in fact I had only been enjoying the smell of it. When I left the restaurant, I knew it had been a great meal, but that nice aroma soon left my nostrils.

I could be really into a book, completely immersed in its contents, and have a wonderful sense of fulfillment after having read it. If the point of reading that book was just to enjoy myself while doing it, then that definitely met the goal. But that wasn’t my goal. My intention, when I first picked up the book, was of course to learn something from it; to have it change my understanding of the world somehow.

Easy. Just explain the contents of the book to a friend. If you feel your brain resisting to produce more than a short bullet list of points that you probably could have read off the back cover of the book, you can be pretty sure it did not change your understanding in any meaningful way.

This is precisely what happened to me when I tried. I had an illusion of competence. I mistook my sense of fulfillment for actual knowledge. It was like an amazing Michelin 3-star meal, that I thought I had eaten, when in fact I had only been enjoying the smell of it. When I left the restaurant, I knew it had been a great meal, but that nice aroma soon left my nostrils.

Teaching does to learning what cement does to sand and water

The problem was that there was no mechanism in place to validate my understanding of the material. Some stuck, some didn’t. Reading several books on the same topic could alleviate the issue to some extent, but that’s a brute force approach. Hardly efficient.

A much better approach is to sprinkle a bit of teaching into it. Teaching does to learning what cement does to sand and water, it solidifies it and allows you to build things on top of it.

Start by clarifying to yourself why you’re reading in the first place. When I think about the potential stored inside the book, and the fact that I can tap into that, and increase my own mental powers, that really motivates me. Reading this way is more akin to problem solving, than say, watching a movie, as you will actively partake a lot more. That’s why you want to give yourself the best possible environment to do that.

You’ll want to avoid distractions while reading. This is one of those concepts that are as easy to understand as they are hard to implement. Most understand why notifications should be turned off. Few actually do. Commit to this idea: you don’t want to rob yourself of the opportunity to level up.

Here’s the big trick. What you need to do to make sure you understand what you’ve read, is to explain it. It’s what you just did to find out what you had learned from a whole book, but on a micro level. Having an audience on standby for this is probably not an option, as you’re going to do this quite often. Luckily, the the brain is a powerful beast. Just imagine yourself as a university lecturer. You might even keep a special pair of glasses to put on when you’re in character. Silly, but effective.

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Photo by Mark Solarski on Unsplash

Now think about what you just read. Explain the concept so as to try to make your audience understand it. This does two things.

  • The act of recalling what you read makes it much more likely to be remembered. It is the first step towards moving the content from your working memory into your long-term memory.
  • Secondly, by summarizing the material, you are connecting the pieces of information to create a package of understanding, a chunk. This chunk will be easier to both store in, and retrieve from, memory.

Once you’re satisfied with your mini-lecture, grab your notebook. On one side, write a word or a sentence that describes what you just explained; the topic of your mini-lecture, if you will. Now turn the page over. On the back of the page, write down the key takeaways. This shouldn’t take long. The hard work has already been done.

Then go on reading the next part. Stop for a new mini-lecture once a new important concept has been covered. That could be anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a whole chapter.

Passively reading piles of material is like riding bumper cars at the town fair

Doing this will drastically improve your odds of understanding and remembering material. The last piece of the puzzle is a strategy for retaining what you’ve learned over time. This is where that notebook will really shine. Flip back a couple of pages to reveal a topic of one of your previous mini-lectures, but don’t look at what you wrote on the back. Try to recall the key takeaways from your own lecture. Revisiting the material this way will bolt it ever more firmly to the back of your mind. A natural opportunity for this is at the beginning of each session of reading.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But per unit of understanding gained, it is actually less work. Passively reading piles of material is like riding bumper cars at the town fair. This approach will have you moving forward like a tank!

You’re oscillating between learning and teaching. You’re a one man university!

…becoming proper ninja!

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