An obvious, but often neglected, fact is that reading can make you smarter and a more well-rounded individual. Once I found my man, Brian Tracy, I stuck with the genre of self-development for years. I’ve absorbed enough self-development work that I almost fell victim to buying Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle (don’t worry, I didn’t — you almost had me, Goop).
But by opening the proverbial doors to classical fiction, philosophy, spirituality, finance, business, stoicism, and biographies, I’ve been able to tap into so many different terrains of thought. Reading literature in my industry and applying principles I’ve learned has helped on so many levels, from my relationships to my lifestyle to my career.
As I learn and develop my skills further, I’m able to provide more value through my freelance work, my business, and my writing — which has helped me increase my self-employment income year over year.
Reading can also alter the neural pathways in our brains, allowing us to make new connections across different disciplines. Emerging ideas can pop up when we’re reading in a totally different subject matter or we can create an amalgam of multiple ideas to create entirely unique ideas. James Altucher calls this, “idea sex” — where more than one idea cums together (hahaha, get it? Idea sex? Ahem…moving on..) to create something entirely new.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s art was heavily influenced by science — specifically, anatomy. He was driven to create some of the most monumental art in history due to his innate curiosity about the world. Da Vinci had a wide array of interests that he explored on a deep level in different parts of his life: anatomical movements, nature and botany, physics, and architecture… just to name a few.
Further, reading can provide us the ability to completely rewire our brain. This is called neuroplasticity. Books have the potential to chemically change the circuitry in our brains. Our mindsets can shift completely and unbeknownst to us, change the lens on how we observe particular situations and topics.
Reading can help us step outside ourselves, exercise empathy, and adopt new perspectives. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, popularized the term ‘growth mindset,’ which “creates a love of learning and resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
This is a quote from Ryan Holiday that I love — a bestselling author who reads hundreds of books a year. Books give us the opportunity and privilege to peek into some of the most prolific and interesting minds in history. What were they thinking? How did they perceive the world and how was this reflected in their writing?
Rich anecdotes and learning can come from reading biographies and autobiographies. Not only do you learn what made these people geniuses, but also the intricate workings of their inner mind — flaws and all.
Albert Einstein was a true genius and one of the greatest physicists of all time: developing the theory of relativity, the explanation for the perihelion of Mercury, among other scientific successes. However, he was not so adept in the game of love. In fact, his love life was a bit of a question mark. Married twice, once to a former classmate and then to his cousin, he wasn’t really known as a real family man.
We tend to put these polymaths, artists, and geniuses on a pedestal, but neglect to realize that while these people have achieved mastery in their craft, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the case in other areas of their life. This understanding and framing helps bring these almost god-like figures back to a secular level — it can help give us more self-compassion on our own shortcomings and mistakes. We’re all only human.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Reading will feed your mind with new inputs, providing you with the ability to experience continuous idea flow. Whenever I feel creatively “stuck” and feel roadblocks in my brain preventing me from coming up with new ideas, I pick up a book.
Usually, within 15–20 minutes, I’ll have a new idea I can apply to my writing and creative work. All good writers are also avid readers. Stephen King reads 70–80 books a year (usually in the realm of fiction) and has published over 60 novels and over 200 short stories so far in his lifetime.
The ‘New Word Library’
A few years ago, I picked up the habit of tracking any new word that I came across in an audiobook, paperback, during a speech, or just in regular conversation with a friend or colleague.
I’ve renovated the Notes app on my phone into a little library, where I’ve accumulated hundreds of words over the years. Although I don’t remember every word I’ve jotted down, it’s great to reference while I’m writing — my own hand-crafted dictionary.
This library helped me read more difficult texts easily (like philosophy and classic literature) when I started seeing these obscure words pop up more often. Every week, I try to incorporate at least one or two new words in my vocabulary — either using them in a blog post, social media post, in conversation, or an email.
This habit alone has improved and expanded my diction tenfold. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “writer” (you are!), we all can benefit from becoming better communicators through writing. Emails, speech writing, preparing a presentation, conversing with colleagues, pitching business.
Active vs. passive reading
Passive reading is where we typically read for fun and pleasure. If there’s something we don’t understand, we skim over it and move on. It’s an enjoyable, relaxed way of reading and a great way to unwind.
Active reading, on the other hand, means that as you read, you engage more deeply with the book and really try to understand the main messages: highlighting important passages, writing ideas in the margins, and adding sticky notes with new ideas that pop into your mind when reading; a book suggestion from the author or other resources to check out later.
Marking up pages and scribbling in the margins is called marginalia and was a method used by many prolific creatives including Mark Twain, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sylvia Plath. Mark Twain wrote sometimes hilarious notes and literary critiques in some of his marginalia:
Being an active reader can also help you retain more of the information that you read. For me, an indication of a good book is when I have a large number of sticky notes compiled throughout. Here’s an example of Robert Greene and 50 Cent’s The 50th Law:
If I leave the book with only a sticky note or two throughout, it’s most likely because I was counting down the minutes until I was finished with the novel. Joking, but you don’t have to do a deep dive analysis into every novel you meet. However, if you read between the lines, there’s usually something you can extract to take on your way — at least that’s been my experience to date.
Once I’m done with the book, I move it to my desk, wait a week to let the content sink and marinate in my brain, and then I transcribe the notes into a folder in my journaling app titled “BOOK NOTES.” Which leads me to my next point…
Compiling book notes & keeping a commonplace book
Another technique I picked up from authors Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene is keeping track of important points I read in “book notes” or in a commonplace book; an ancient practice where you can accumulate and record a compilation of knowledge that spans over a lifetime.
The commonplace book can be organized however you choose, but many contain book passages, quotes, recipes, interesting ideas, speeches, insights, or pieces of advice passed down from mentors.
My commonplace book is organized by reading, writing, entrepreneurship, spirituality, productivity, personal finance, philosophy, ideas, advice from mentors or friends, and quotes from pop culture. These subjects don’t just exist in silos; the more I read, the more I start to notice new themes emerging and connections forming.
Greene and Holiday keep meticulous notes on index cards, which has become a staple procedure in their writing. It’s a very analog method, but it’s clearly worked for them. Some of the success surrounding Ryan’s best-selling books The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy can be attributed to his accumulation of thousands of 4×6 index cards. Once he’s accumulated enough index cards, he uses the quotes, anecdotes, and ideas to form the basis of his books.
If you’ve read Robert Green’s work (Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Laws of Human Nature, etc.), you’ll know the level of detail, rich anecdotes, and extensive research that go into each one of his books. Robert Greene’s process is intense, to say the least. He reads about 300–400 books as research for one novel and follows the same protocol as Ryan. Greene writes,
“I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards, each card representing an important theme in the book.”
While I’m not that intense with compiling my research, I’ve noticed that I’m able to reference and pull quotes more easily into my writing by just doing a simple search in my journaling app, Day One. In the app, I separate out my Commonplace book, Book Notes and My Book Notes (specific to the book I’m currently writing) and color code each (as depicted below):
While this may seem tedious and does require a bit of admin work, it can be a very fulfilling and engaging process. I encourage you to give active reading a try with the next book you read. See how much more information you can retain — it’s a deeply satisfying and fulfilling process.
Entrepreneur and blogger Nat Eliason even turned his book notes into a digital product which he titles Brain and charges a $25 fee. So there you go — a new side hustle idea for ya!
Reading can act as a mentor
A mentor is one the best ways to learn — wisdom passed down from another individual’s personal experience. This can be particularly rewarding if you find a mentor to help coach you through the attainment of a particular goal. When I started my company, Oneiric, my business partner and I were lucky enough to get accepted into a startup incubator where we were assigned mentors in each of the areas of business: PR, marketing, sales, branding, HR, and finance.
Each of these mentors had over 20 years of experience in their specific discipline and had worked with numerous other startups across several different verticals — giving them well-rounded experience and transferable advice. We had a designated amount of hours to work with these mentors, who each gave us advice that radically transformed the growth of our business.
While finding a mentor to help with personal career aspirations may be more difficult, a good substitute is a book. I’ve read hundreds of books on leadership and entrepreneurship that not only shaped my business but also allowed me to give more value to my freelance clients in my digital marketing work.
Any problem or challenge you’re experiencing, I can guarantee that someone else has not only experienced it as well, but has also written about it. Seeking out these resources can help shape not just your career aspirations but help you along in many other areas of your life. There’s comfort in knowing that your experience is shared.
I wanted to end this post with a few book recommendations that have made a profound impact on my life. It was tough to narrow it down, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ve just included some favorites that came to mind.
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
This book was recommended to me by a mentor I worked with in the initial stages of my business. It’s a classic. The E-Myth argues that some of the impediments to scaling a company comes from the lack of systems and from the business owner being too intertwined with the day-to-day or what he calls “the technical work” of the business.
“Everybody who goes into business is actually three-people-in-one: The Entrepreneur, The Manager, and The Technician,” writes Gerber. The technician performs the technical work; the do-er. The manager runs the business in a more pragmatic fashion — engaging in the planning and manages the people. The entrepreneur is the visionary — the innovator who plans for the future.
Gerber challenges his readers to think through how they could get their business to live on without them (by devising systems) and encourages them to think through what work they actually enjoy.
Applicability: When my business partner and I first launched our business, we were both in the weeds and doing whatever we could to acquire our first customers. We’d engage in some really grassroots, not so scalable activities.
For instance, going to hockey tournaments and setting up a booth almost every single weekend for an entire year, and doing in-store demos in retail stores to try to push in-store sell-through. While this helped us gain a bit of traction and some initial brand awareness, we quickly learned that we needed to step outside of our technical work and approach the business from a more strategic perspective.
Using the principles behind the E-Myth, we developed systems in marketing, sales, customer service, operations, and finance. We stopped managing the business and more so, managed the systems. The systems ran the business and for us, that meant fewer touchpoints. We went from grinding away with 60-hour work weeks to much more flexible schedules.
Automation has been our vision over the last few years and we’ve both become more acutely aware of where we sit in the spectrum: my business partner is more of a manager and I’m more of an entrepreneur. We both use these different skill sets to help our business grow and our perspective can certainly be attributed to the principles of the E-Myth.
The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau
This book was the impetus behind my currently running routine. The Happiness of Pursuit presents the concept of question; how undertaking quests can add more meaning and purpose to our lives. Chris describes a quest as a long-term goal or objective that’s deeply personal to us — it sparks a sense of adventure and challenge in our lives.
Chris’ own quest and perhaps his motivation behind the book, was to travel to all 193 countries. He highlights his own questing experience but also highlights stories of other remarkable individuals who devised their own — some ranging from inspirational to just plain strange.
The book takes the reader through the process of how to create your own quest: acknowledging that it’s a big decision, understanding the risks and costs involved, the trade-offs, planning big, persevering when the going gets tough, overcoming adversity, and how to handle the post-quest comedown.
Applicability: This book sparked my first “mini-quest” in 2017, which was a 10K/day challenge in the month of January. The success of my first challenge sparked more ostentatious goals which led to the #RUN70 Consecutive Running Challenge (a world record attempt) and has now turned into a quest to run every day.
I’m coming up to four years of running consecutively and can confidently attest that this book was the inspiration behind it all. Not only did this book inspire changes in myself, but also helped me devise the #RUN30 Challenge: a template for others to complete a consecutive running challenge of their own (which hundreds have now completed to date).
Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
Ahh, our good friend, the ego. This book is broken out into three parts: the ascent, failure and success, and how ego plays a role in each part of our journey. Holiday uses historical anecdotes and his own account as the director of marketing at American Apparel when CEO Dov Charney went on a precipitous ego-fuelled descent.
The main takeaways include always staying a student (of life), developing humility, and self-awareness. He highlights several stories (ie. Howard Huges) that serve as a warning to be conscious of the presence of the ego and how it can be a deleterious role in our lives if it remains unchecked.
Applicability: This book is a big wake-up call. Ego is not only that voice in our head that is comparing us to others and fosters an air of arrogance, but what’s important here is the opposite: humility. Humility is what keeps us learning and moving forward. It prevents our minds from becoming ossified — where we stop learning and think we know everything already.
Ego keeps us stuck in a place of complacency — dwelling on our accomplishments for too long and preventing us from setting new goals. Ego is a “hungry ghost” — a principle in Chinese Buddhism where we’re never satisfied despite how many accolades and accomplishments we’ve accumulated over our lifetime. Acknowledging that we all have egos and keeping them in check is how we can move forward and continue growing.
Putting my ego aside has helped me enter new, unfamiliar territory to develop skills. Knowing I’m going to suck at first but continuing to try regardless. This book helped spark the epiphany that the more skilled I get at a specific discipline, the more I realize how much I don’t know — opening the doors to a journey of lifelong learning and growth.
Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
It was hard for me to pin down one biography because there are so many: Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, and Einstein by Walter Isaacson are among some of my tops. What I really loved about Daily Rituals, however, is that it highlights how many famous creative professionals throughout history (artists, writers, composers, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, etc.) structure their daily routines and rituals. Currey highlights 161 different daily rituals to be exact.
Applicability: I always find it so fascinating to observe other people’s daily routines through the lens of an outsider. The biggest takeaway is that there is no such thing as a universal “successful routine” — despite what any self-help guru tells you (*cough* Rachel Hollis *cough* 4 a.m. wake-up *cough*).
We all need to devise our own routines and rituals to set ourselves up for success — whatever that means to you. While I have my own daily rituals, these have changed over time. I’m always experimenting and changing things up to keep inspiration and motivation fresh.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
This is hands down one of my favorite books of all time. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve listened to the audiobook version over 20 times. As clearly outlined in the title, Tolle’s main takeaway is to find the now. Future and past are not reality — there’s only now.
Pain and suffering arise from too much past and too much future; our salvation as humanity and to living a conscious life is in the present. Eckhart also introduces the concept of surrendering: the root of suffering and pain is when we resist our circumstances. Realizing we are not our mind, but rather, that the mind is a tool that we can use. We need to use it then lay it down to rest. Through practice, we can gain control of our minds and experience more lapses in thought. Otherwise, our minds will control us.
Applicability: I think every human being on this earth should read this book. There’s a reason why it’s sold millions of copies worldwide. Before I read this book, I struggled to upkeep a meditation practice. This book gave me the context behind my practice — to help control the mind and be the watcher of my emotions and reactions. Realizing this is a self-made allusion that the mind makes up.
This realization, combined with my meditation practice, has helped me experience more inner calm in my daily life, a more focused and sharper mind, and an ability to better handle my emotions (for the most part). I can’t say enough good things about this book so if you haven’t read it, I would say this should be the #1 book you should read next.
Quit Like a Millionaire by Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung
This book first introduced me to the concept behind the FIRE movement and achieving financial independence. Well actually, The Simple Guide to Wealth was the first, but this one had more practicality to a Canadian audience. Kristy and Bryce’s story is an interesting one: with careful financial planning and investing, both were able to retire at age 30 and travel the world.
Their investments now cover all their expenses and allow them to work on projects that are meaningful to them (the dream, right?). The book leads you through practical advice that doesn’t sell the latest investment scheme, but rather, acts as the signposts on your road to achieving financial independence.
Applicability: This book is a great primer to sound financial planning and investment. Some personal takeaways include: increasing my monthly savings rate to >50%, opening my own self-directed investment account, changing my perspective on expenses, and how to achieve financial independence in my future.
Through some calculations, I now know the number I need to retire (or not have to worry about working to earn an income anymore) and the savings rate I need to achieve to get there based on my years to retirement goal. For further reading, you can take their free Investment Workshop, which I did to set up my own QuestTrade account and set up my first portfolio of index funds and bonds (which I now contribute to regularly).
While fiction typically is known more for entertainment, you can actually learn a lot from this genre. I couldn’t pinpoint a single one so decided to list a few favorites:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson
You by Caroline Kepnes
In the Blood by Lisa Unger
The benefits of reading are truly endless. I could go on a separate tangent on how reading before bed can help you sleep, reading in the morning can prime your brain and make you more productive, and how it can be used as a tool to reduce stress and anxiety, but I think it’s time to wrap this one up.
In sum, reading is a privilege that we should all take advantage of. We have the ability to solve many problems and challenges we face in life through books. Adopt the perspective that reading should be part of our work — it will make you feel less guilty for taking some time out of your workday to learn something new. It’s OK to also read for pleasure and enjoyment — as a hobby and it doesn’t always need to be “work.”
Try becoming an active reader to better absorb the material and engage more deeply with the book. I hope you too can find for yourself the transformative powers reading can have on our lives.