Want to Be Successful? Read a Book a Week – Really

Shelves stacked with books
A big pile of books | Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Whether you grew up a bookworm or not, you probably haven’t escaped reading for a significant portion of your life. Graduating from high school and getting your degree centered around reading – either by slogging through the pages your instructors assigned, or figuring out how to pass your classes without it. Reading is the foundation for learning, and if you’re looking to succeed in your career in a significant way, it might be time to pick up a book or two. If Warren Buffett attributes at least part of his success to it, it’s probably good enough for you to try, too.

Of course, we probably don’t all have the luxury of devoting 80% of our day to reading new information, as Buffett does. And we also aren’t running an online book club like Mark Zuckerberg. But books are a fantastic vehicle for learning more about how to be successful, either in our careers, in our finances, in our relationships, or all of the above. On top of that, research shows reading boosts your perceived attractiveness (likely by helping you appear more intelligent), improves your memory, and ultimately makes your smarter. Who doesn’t want those side effects?

When we talk about reading books for the sake of success, we’re not referencing that collection of Michael Crichton novels on your bookshelf – although if you choose to read fiction instead of binging on Netflix, we’re not going to stop you.

Instead, we’re talking about choosing a topic of interest, and reading nonfiction books to boost your knowledge about that topic area. Not only will you be able to become a mini-expert on that subject, but you’ll earn a seat at the table anytime someone else is discussing them. Depending on your topic, you might also benefit financially or in your career by learning about smart investment techniques or ways to become a better leader.

In all likelihood, you’d be willing to give this a try, if only you had multiple hours in a week to do so. We get it, you’re busy. But you don’t need to devote hours of your free time to reading to still reap the rewards, and finish a book per week. The trick is that with most nonfiction volumes, you don’t have to read the entire book, word for word. Here’s the crash course you wish you had in college.

close up of an open book
Source: iStock

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners and also the host of a podcast in which he interviews authors about their recent work. That typically requires reading at least one book per week, a task that has become much simpler for Bregman in recent years. “I am richer for all this reading. I know more and take more risks as I apply what I’m learning. I also feel more confident in my own views and actions, as well as empathize and understand others better, since I have more context,” Bregman wrote in a post for the Harvard Business Review.

The key, as Bregman recounts a lesson from his own college days, is to understand the books, not read them cover to cover. Thankfully, understanding a book takes much less time than analyzing every word on the page – and allows you to get through a book per week, regardless of how fast of a reader you are. Bregman shares his methods, passed down from a college professor and adapted so you can apply this to any subject you’d like to read about.

1. Know the author

No, we don’t mean meeting them on the street. But read their biography, and read an interview or article about them online, if that exists. “It will give you a sense of the person’s bias and perspective,” Bregman explains.

2. Read the title, subtitle, front flap of the book jacket, and the table of contents

By doing these things, you should be able to determine the main argument or point of the book, and how that argument is laid out within the pages. By this point, Bregman said, you should be able to tell someone else what the book is about.

3. Read the introduction and conclusion

At the beginning and ending of the book, the author is going to be making their case for why they’re writing the book, complete with their opening and closing arguments. Bregman suggests reading both of these sections word for word, but doing so quickly. “You already have a general sense of where the author is going, and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion),” he explained.

4. Read/skim each chapter

Up until now, the steps were probably the ones you took in college when you didn’t have time for all the material, and/or you thought it was a snoozefest. But to get the full picture, you’ll need to put in a little more work. Bregman suggests reading the first few paragraphs or first few pages of each chapter (likely depending upon the book’s length in general). Then skim through the headings and subheadings to understand the general flow of the chapter, followed by reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Move on if you understand it, or go back and read the entire paragraph if you’re not sure what it’s saying. “Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself,” Bregman said.

5. End with the table of contents a second time

By doing so, you’ll be able to go over the flow of the entire book in your head, summarizing it and considering the arguments the author made.

Overall, this process normally takes 1-2 hours instead of a normal 6-8 hours for Bregman, he said. That’s finishing a book in the same time it takes to watch an episode or two of Game of Thrones. But even though it will take a fraction of the time, you’ll remember far more of the content than if you had half-skimmed the entire thing.

“That’s because you’re not simply reading the material; you’re actively engaging with it. Your mind is alert the whole time and you’re able to see the book more holistically. You’re not just taking it in; you’re figuring it out,” Bregman said.

Not sure which books to start with? We have a few suggestions if you’d like to learn more about personal finance, how to be the most stylish man in the office, how to save the planet, or if you want to read some of the tomes that are arguably the most influential in the world.

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