Ryan Holiday changed my life. Though we’ve never talked and may never, he deeply impacted me. Ryan has written extensively about reading and how important a part of his life it is. Most of what I have to offer on the topic merely echoes his teachings, but nevertheless has become so much a part of me that I can’t just ignore it or redirect attention elsewhere. I need to write about it too.

Ryan wrote about reading like it was essential to his survival. He explained that he classed it with eating and sleeping. This alone enabled a profound shift to take place in my mind about the way that I treated reading. I valued reading, no doubt. Many of my friends failed to read as much as me, and probably had little desire to do so. I had a pretty impressive collection of books in comparison to my peers. When the shift occurred where I came to regard reading in a similar way as Ryan, an insatiable appetite developed in me – or at least was allowed to finally come to the surface – for knowledge.

There was so much I needed to read.

He wrote about making a deal with himself that if he ever wanted a book, he wouldn’t let money or time or anything else stop him from owning it. He wrote about how owning it to him meant more than reading it right away. He might not read it for years, but it was there for him when he wanted it. He wrote about this resulting in several – or many – books that he hadn’t read, and rather than this being a negative aspect, he viewed it as his anti-library. The anti-library produced still more motivation for him to read what he was reading so that he could continue to move through all the books that he wanted to read, which he saw every time he looked at his bookshelves. He went into detail about his approaches to reading, to taking notes, to commonplacing, to doing all these things that helped him to give maximum function to his reading. He ultimately wrote about how it was essential to his writing process, and how one leant to the other, providing him with not only an effective way to self-educate, but a career that has thus far proved prosperous.

I, and many people I know and follow, have experienced life-altering insight as a direct result of reading a book. For fifteen or twenty dollars, my life could be significantly affected for the better. This low-risk gamble excited me and continues to. Unlike gambling at a casino, the stakes are low and the potential for gain is inevitable and guaranteed. The biggest cost isn’t the aforementioned price tag, it’s the time, energy, commitment, and seriousness one brings to the practice of reading.

It’s a decision. Simple as that. All Ryan did – other than display his enthusiasm by setting a detailed example – was give me permission to become obsessed with reading too.


Bringing It All Together

Recently I read something that resonated with me. It explained a problem in my life that I didn’t have a name for, providing a solution that I knew I had. In reading, I discover lots of information. Occasionally, I receive insight, and I’m working to develop my ability to read for understanding so to increase the frequency of insight.

“Outcomes have replaced insights as the yardstick of learning.”

Lowell Monke

With all the reading though, much of that information is funneled into my conscious mind, but quickly sneaks back out. Besides this, there’s also a disconnection between the information and it serving immediate function. In other words, the information I consume doesn’t always have an immediate practical application.

For this reason, the letters and words that give my life such deep meaning are fragmented – all floating around in seeming disarray, without tangible connection to one another.

What I mentioned above that I recently read, spoke to resolving this fragmentation through creative work. This woman wrote about her creative process – how she starts with raw materials and combines them; how she gives them form through movement; how she finishes with something that’s not only uniquely original, but whole and complete. Metaphorically rich, it immediately resonated with me as I’ve illuminated above already, further validating the need for me to write.

I write anyway, so it wasn’t a call to do something new, per se. But what it did was give my writing deeper purpose, and gave this style of writing – blogging – new function.

I used to dabble on a couple years ago. I recall being impressed by one particular writer’s little two-sentence blurb about himself, visible at the top of his posts just below his picture. Everybody had catchy little writing-related aphorisms that made them seem worldly – at least to me. I can’t recall exactly what his was, but it was something to do with walking through life and trying to write his way through it.

Anyway, I thought it sounded really clever, and so I adopted it into my vernacular repertoire of witticisms, but I didn’t really get it. What writing allows me – among many other things – is the ability to take an idea or question or concept, and really dissect it. Perhaps at first this is only superficially, but with inventorying anything, I can really take it apart piece by piece. At the time it was over my head, but that’s the point. I don’t need to have all the answers. In writing in and around something, I can discover truth, insight, understanding. I can create bridges, connecting seemingly unrelated ideas or information, giving meaning to a new combination of notions – a new train of thought.

I’m able to bring it all together, perpetually cultivating deeper and deeper meaning in my life. Reading feeds the writing, and writing feeds the reading – a cycle I look forward to residing in indefinitely.

Bringing It All Together

Asking Better Questions

I spend a fair amount of time reading. Beyond that, my ambition is to spend a fair amount of time writing. I do okay there too. Sometimes in between I find myself in the presence of people who are smarter than me. I don’t write that as a way to either belittle or aggrandize myself intellectually, but the fact is that I’m quite fortunate to have ended up where I am. The people I encounter on a routine basis are relatively accomplished in their own ways, and have a lot to offer – whether they realize it or not.

And, whether they realize it or not, I do, and I attempt to make the most of that insight by prying. I will occasionally grasp a teacher’s hand – at the school where I’m so fortunate to exist – over the table during one of our daily communal meals, look them piercingly in the eyeballs, and in all frankness, demand they tell me everything I need to know to be successful in life.

That never happens, actually.

I do frequently engage with them and other folks though – often over lunch – and I’ve made it my task to try to learn from them in conspicuous and not-so-conspicuous ways. Mainly, I’ve learned to ask for book recommendations. In doing this, people present who know me well will roll their eyes, sighing in preparation for my taking hostage any potentially wholesome, all-involving conversation that may have happened.

How does one effectively ask for book recommendations though? It’s easy to be vague here.

So, uh.. Any books worth reading these days?

No. I get a little hemmed-up here sometimes. I’ve often felt like the guy at a café asking a cute barista for her phone number after some trivially unimpressive attempt at a conversation.

I finally devised an effective question for situations like the one with the teacher – still hopelessly unequipped regarding the barista. “Most influential book(s)” doesn’t always apply, that is unless we share careers or at least aspirations. Sometimes this will yield interesting results, but it’s not exactly the bread and butter we’re looking for. “Book(s) you think I should read” doesn’t work unless they know something about us. Even “important book(s)” is hugely subjective and, if they read a lot, they aren’t going to know where to begin. I’ve even tried to utilize a mentor’s question: “Book(s) you’ve given away most frequently,” but depending on who we’re talking to, they may have never given a book away in the first place.

I’ve written enough chatter here. The grand finale is as follows:

“If you could deem one to three books as essential for all people to read, what would they be?”

We could dramatically increase the quality of our lives by learning to ask better questions. This, of course, presupposes that we’re willing to ask them.

Asking Better Questions