On Reading and Excuses

"I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students... "

"Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, ‘What’s your alma mater?’ I told him, ‘Books.’” - Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The first step in our self-educating satisfaction of curiosity has to come by reading, or another truly adequate form of deliberate time spent learning. Far too many examples exist of great successes that spent considerable time reading to list them all within these pages. Warren Buffett spends 5+ hours reading each day: it’s no coincidence that he is one of the richest men on the planet, and has been many times before. Charlie Munger, Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, even Oprah: the common thread among all of them is their willingness to read books. The simplicity lies in our willingness to sit down and grab the information. It’s right there in front of you. Now grab it, and hold on to it until you learn something.

Why don't you read?

"Reading is boring, and it doesn't matter to me."

One of the common concerns—or rather, excuses—in regards to reading is that it’s boring. Fair enough, the reading that you were forced to do in your senior English class was remarkably boring: that’s not what I’m asking you to do. I’m asking you to read about the things you need to learn about no matter what. That’s why we spend time figuring out our purpose and establishing a direction. Now, through reading, you will learn how to take action and guide yourself down the path of those dreams. Just in time for success, not just in case.

There is a distinction to be made between “just in case” learning and “just in time” learning. In school, you are being taught business calculus and differential equations just in case you need this information later in your career. If you’re starting a new job and being trained, you are learning just in time to apply the learning to your work. The problem with school is not the learning itself, but rather the fact that it is entirely “just in case”.

Of course, everyone needs foundational knowledge and skills (i.e. basic reading and writing), but even if you graduate high school, you may be missing some things. By enrolling in our own education, we can begin to gain skills and identify the gaps that need to be filled, rather than fill ourselves with questionably useful arbitrary information. Our learning and curiosity has a purpose, now. It’s not about the grades or admissions anymore: it’s about developing our own insights. That's what the reading is for, and now that you're not being forced to do it by some arbitrary curriculum, it's a meaningful endeavor. Thank goodness.

"I don't learn by reading."

Fine. You're a hands-on learner. Good for you, but you probably aren't doing that either. More than reading, I'm asking you to learn, and if that means walking into a workshop every single day and refining your craft, then do it.If you want to a be a master woodworker and don't think you should be reading, but you’re not spending time in a workshop, you’re still wrong. But don't use the fact that you don't learn this way as an excuse not to learn any way.

There are a couple of practical concerns with refusing to read physical books and opt for other entertainment mediums you might find. For one, you put yourself at a much higher risk of being distracted when you spend hours on end watching “educational videos” rather than focusing on one book at a time and truly imbibing the knowledge therein. Second, you turn down an entire world of already curated content simply because it’s not in an easy-to-consume format for you personally. Videos are no doubt an excellent way to learn new things, but they are no excuse to not spend time reading. Just look at the results: up until today, you’ve probably spent a couple hours a day on YouTube, social media, and other entertainment platforms that you rationalize as useful or even educational to you. Where did that take you? It brought you to me, so that I could tell you to put all that garbage away and get out a book.

"I don't have any time to read."

You’re an absolute liar if this is the reason that you will not pick up a book. You have time for all sorts of mundane, useless activity in your life, but a couple minutes of really truly reading is too much for you? You’re not busy, you’re lying, and trying to make excuses to not do the right thing. How much time did you spend on your phone today looking at nothing? You spent 30 minutes staring at the ceiling before you woke up this morning? What did you do on your lunch break with the time that you weren’t eating? How about when you were on the bus this morning making your commute? Don’t BS yourself, you just don’t want to put the time in to learn: that’s no excuse to not do it.

Unless you have completely filled every nook and cranny of your schedule (including the time you spend on the bus, at lunch, or even on the toilet) with some sort of obligation (which you obviously haven't), then you can squeeze out at least some time to read every day.

Test it for yourself! For the next 7 days, all you have to do is read for 5 minutes a day. Maybe it does end up happening during lunch because you're busy all evening—that's okay! You found the time, and you can continue to find the time to read and deliberately learn, and guess what? It'll change your life, just like it did for all of the other greats who decided to abandon their resistance and get in the books.

Within a week or two, increase it to 10 minutes a day. Then, increase it to 15 minutes a day. At the end of this challenge, I guarantee that you will have learned more with 5, 10, and 15 minutes a day of reading for 30 days than you did with 30 days of 60+ minutes in your last English class you took (and fell asleep in). How’s that for learning?

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To leave you with one final example, Abraham Lincoln effectively received no formal education, but borrowed books and newspapers and constantly read [learning]. It is said that after the age of 12, there was always a book in his hand [relentlessly]. He taught himself law and passed the bar in 1836. He read books on public speaking and used what he learned to practice and improve his public speaking… from a tree stump.

Abraham Lincoln is not the only successful man or woman to figure out that books are the most vital self-educating tool of all time. It’s not that nobody else had access to the books that Lincoln had, it’s that nobody had the willingness to learn like he did. That’s what makes us different as dropouts: we do have that propensity to get in the books and learn about things that actually matter, understanding the deferred gratification of reading, becoming educated, and using that to become successful in all that we do.

 

This is an excerpt from The Dropout Manifesto. You can get a free PDF of the book below, or buy it on Amazon.