I think most people like to see themselves as being unique. From early childhood most kids are taught that they are special and original. Western culture celebrates independence, so starting as toddlers, children are taught to think and act as being in a slightly different class than everyone else.
While there are some benefits to this viewpoint, there’s also a cost. The cost comes from deluding yourself into thinking that your problems, challenges and aspirations are completely unique. In reality, there has probably been a billion people who have had almost exactly the same problem you are facing. Chances are there are at least a million people, alive today, who have faced and overcome your challenges.
Instead of being unique, your problems are commonplace. Whatever you’re facing, someone has already checked that off their to-do list. Although this can be an ego-shattering realization, it is also useful. Because, if other people have solved your problem before, you can use their solutions as a cheat sheet.
Cheat by Having the Answers Before the Test
Your cheat sheet comes in the form of books. If somebody has faced a problem, they have written it down. Although the specifics of your problem may have changed since they were written, the core themes have not. Reading books is your way of collecting the answers well ahead of the test date.
When I realized I was making the same stupid mistakes other people had made before me, I started consuming books. I’ve read as much as 70 books in a year, and I try to read at least 300-500 pages a week.
Don’t Just Read Self-Help
I basically don’t read self-help books. Aside from genre-busting books like The 4-Hour Workweek or Getting Things Done, I don’t read much in that area. Instead, I strive to read as wide a variety of fiction and nonfiction as possible. Seeing as my writing could be classified as “self-help”, I feel my decision needs a bit of explanation.
Self-help books tend to produce a certain category of solutions to all problems. While the books are carefully marketed and sometimes well-written, rarely does a self-help book truly push outside those existing categories. If you haven’t read any books on personal development or goal setting, that perspective might be useful. But after a few dozen books in the field, it can become repetitive.
The problem is that while that category of solutions might work in some cases, it doesn’t work in all of them. There are a lot of oversimplifications and holes in typical self-help philosophy. I think this is part of the reason there is so much cynicism against it. I’m not against self-help books, but I think there are limitations if that is the only kind of book that fills your library.
The alternative is to read a large variety of books. Read books that don’t look like they have any relevance to your life at first glance. While you’ll encounter some duds, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many great ideas I can turn up.
The Value Doesn’t Come From Answers, But From Thinking
Another reason to read a large variety of books is that many of them take more work to connect back to your personal situation. Self-help books usually do most of the work for you, but reading a book on theoretical physics, evolution or the history of Southeast Asia is a bit trickier.
The more thinking you need to do to connect a book to your life, the more valuable that solution will be. If you want to look at it from the perspective of holistic learning, it means you need to create a larger web to integrate the new information.
Metaphors are Your Intellectual Weapons in Preventing Mistakes
It’s impossible to know exactly the movement of every atom and electron. Reality is too large and complex to fit inside our brains. As the saying goes, “the map is not the territory.”
New ideas and metaphors are the intellectual knives to cut up reality and fit it into your brain. Some of these simplifications are useful, and help you see answers that were previously invisible. Reading a large amount, and from a wide variety gives you the best chance of finding these ideas. Finding more ideas means fewer stupid mistakes.