How to start a reading practice

Posted by: Tom Pappas
Category: Leader's Gymnasium

‘Heavy lifting’ for your mental leadership muscles

If you haven’t learned how to learn, you’ll have a hard time. Knowing how to learn is partly curiosity. But it’s also a discipline. ~ Peter Drucker

Knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increase constantly or it vanishes. ~ Peter Drucker

In my experience the biggest mistake business leaders make is that they don’t read enough.  As knowledge workers there is an expectation of continuous learning. Busy business leaders are pretty good at keeping up with market trends.  They usually succeed at getting information from online sources, conferences, consultants, fellow colleagues and staff members. But if you ask them if they have a regular practice of reading to grow their personal and professional skills my experience is this doesn’t really happen much.

I’ve been inspired by the great management thinker Peter Drucker who was a master at self-learning.  The opening epigraphs highlight Drucker’s wisdom here when he preached that learning is a discipline and that it needs to be constantly stimulated and grown.

“Drucker developed a self-study system in which every few years he picked a new topic and studied it intensively on his own. In the years immediately preceding his death, perhaps realizing that because of his age a three-year system was impractical, he accelerated the projects into three-month time frames.”  Bruce Rosenstein, ‘Living in more than one world

I asked myself how I could create my own self-study stems to accelerate my learning as a leader. I combined two concepts: Druckers’ accelerated learning projects and the wisdom of Mortimer Adler’s book ‘How to Read a Book.’

Years ago my twin brother, Dr Sam Pappas (my co-creative collaborator on this site) recommended I read a book that had a great reading list. I hesitated wondering how a book from 1940 written about reading books could be of any value to me. I’ve already mastered how to read.  “Don’t you remember our elementary school years Sam?” I picked it up anyway.

Adler described four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical reading. This last type, syntopical, is the most interesting for leaders eager to grow.

Syntopical reading  is used to compare and contrast different works and different ideas.  As a result, it’s the first type of reading that deals with two or more books.  Adler list 5 steps in Syntopical reading:  finding the relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms, getting the questions clear, defining the issues and analyzing the discussion.

I won’t explain all the concepts here.  What’s important to realize is how different this type of reading than what you are traditionally used to. Your goal with syntopical reading is not understand each particular book but to find the connection among all the books you are reading.  This connection may be very different than the author’s purpose of writing their individual book. To do this you will have to use your own terms (not the authors), ask your own questions and define your issues (which may not be addressed by the author).  These steps prepare you to interpret “the conflict of opposing answers” you most likely will come across in your reading.

How do I use this information in my reading practice?

First, it’s important to understand in this type of reading it’s not about the book but the subject. Most casual readers choose their reading material based on best sellers lists such as the New York Times or Amazon reading lists.  There is nothing wrong, per se, with these lists but the reading selection is often not intentional and not broad or diverse in scope.

I categorize my reading list based on three broad topics:

  • Leadership. These are books not only about leadership itself but, more importantly, the components of leadership such as character and virtue, mission, strategy, execution, culture, communication, change, human nature and consciousness.
  • Self-Mastery. This section is focused on becoming an integrated human being through self-mastery. We do that by focusing on the four cornerstones of humanity: body, mind, emotions and spirit. These four components become additional areas to include in your reading list.
  • Biography. One of the most neglected areas of reading is the biography. Leadership and self-mastery books are ‘theoretical’ by nature: providing ideal guidance of a process or approach to the topic. Biographies are equally, if not more valuable to growing leaders. We get to share the experience and wisdom of a leader’s actual experience: their rise, struggle, mastery, failures and successes in the crucible of life.

I focus on 3-4 books to read in one month at a time. This accelerates our learning and forces us to compress it in a natural cycle of a month. Ideally, I try to read one book a week but depending on the size I may fit only 3 books in month.

Remember, the focus is on different books on one topic or theme where you are able to compare and contrast the different ideas, syntopically, as Mortimer Adler advises.

At any time you may find yourself reading:

  • 3 -4 different books and authors on one topic. You will want to compare and contrast different authors writing about the same topics. You can make this broad such as 4 different leadership books or drill down and read 4 books on military leadership lessons or niche it down further with 4 books on leadership lessons from the Navy Seals.
  • 3-4 different books from one author. Another way to categorize your reading is to pick an established author who has a long track record in one area. You may be motivated in your spiritual reading to read 4 different books by Deepak Chopra or Huston Smith. As I write this I am in the middle of reading 4 different books by Richard Koch on one idea: the 80/20 principle.
  • 3-4 different books about one person. You’ll often find that for great men and women reading one book on their life does not provide justice to their life’s wisdom. I found myself reading four different books on Churchill ranging from his official biographer, to a British historian and politician to the preeminent American Churchill expert.  In another example, I was so fascinated by the former US Air Force Colonel and military strategist John Boyd that I read 3 different books: a general biography, an overview of his strategic ideas and a final book applying these ideas to business.
  • 3-4 different versions of the same book. Finally, you may come across some classic books that have multiple versions or translations. The best example of this that I have experienced is strategy classic The Art of War.  I was first exposed to this classic at West Point. I have since come to realize that there are multiple translations, each with subtle differences. Check out a great site by Thomas Huynh dedicated to The Art of War for seven different recommendations, eight if you forgive the author’s modesty and  include his excellent version of the classic:

Ideally, you will use the last week of the month to review and synthesize the ideas you captured during your reading. As you reflect on your notes and the inspiring ideas that stood out for you, you will realize that your concentrated period of learning has allowed you to become a ‘mini’ expert on your topic.

That’s it.

Done on a continual basis you’ll be amazed at how much new insight and perspective you will gain. Think of this as ‘heavy lifting’ for your mental leadership muscles. When you combine this with your day to day experience you are able to make new connections, realize new patterns and continually get one step closer to wisdom.

When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it. ~ Thomas Sterner, Author of The Practicing Mind

I’m often reminded of Jim Rohn’s admonishment that what’s easy to do is also easy not do.  The same applies to a reading practice. It’s a discipline that needs prioritization in your busy life.

Author: Tom Pappas

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