As my regular readers know, I review in great detail two books a week, one personal finance book and one personal development book. In those reviews, I try to extract most of the key ideas and put them in a form such that a person can get many of the key ideas of the book in one five minute read and decide for themselves whether or not to go ahead and purchase the book.
One big factor in this, though, is that I know many people who read the review that I write will probably never pick up that book, nor any book like it. Why? For many people (thankfully, not for me), personal finance and personal development books are as boring as can be. They might be avid fiction readers, but picking up a copy of The Intelligent Investor sounds like a recipe for a nap, not a recipe for enlightenment.
Quite often, the big reason for this is that people dive into personal finance and personal development books as if they’re the latest release from Stephen King and, when they get a bunch of pages in, they can’t help but think that they’re just not as entertained as they would be by reading something else. This leads directly to eyes glazing over and the book being set off to the side and forgotten.
I approach reading a personal finance book much differently than I would approach reading something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (incidentally, if you enjoyed Harry Potter and are reading this, you owe it to yourself to give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a shot – it’s an incredible novel). Instead of seeking enjoyment, I seek to quickly locate and pull out information that’s useful to me and note it for later use and investigation.
Here are eight tips that you can directly apply to do the same; try picking up a personal finance book (here’s a big list of capsule reviews of them) and applying some of these ideas. You’ll be surprised how much more you get out of the book – and how much less boring it can be.
Keep a notebook and a pen at hand As you’re going through any book, you’re going to have ideas and thoughts of all kinds occur to you, or you’ll see a piece of information that’s particularly interesting. Write it down. And don’t overdo it, either – only write down the stuff you think is genuinely applicable or genuinely makes you think. Obviously, you can use a computer to do this if you’d like, but I often find that my pocket Moleskine and my Fisher Bullet Space Pen do the trick better than keeping a laptop open – I can carry them around in my pocket easily.
I not only do this notetaking with all nonfiction I read, I also do it with all of the weightier literature I read. Take, for example, Middlesex (a novel on my mind right now because I enjoyed it so much and am rather baffled by the fact that Oprah picked it for her book club); when I read it, I jotted down a ton of random ideas about sexual identity and various cultural touchstones for me to look into later on. These little ideas later led me down a lot of interesting paths and eventually made Middlesex an even richer novel than it was before.
Skim You picked up this book to learn from, not to be bored to death by. That means that you don’t have to read every word – your goal is to extract the ideas from it that are going to be useful in your life. Glide your eyes down the page and let the ideas that are there jump out at you. It takes some practice and everyone has their own speed, but it really works. One can often extract almost all of the important points from a book like this in a fraction of the time that it would take to read every word – a real-world implementation of the whole “20% of the effort provides 80% of the effect” phenomenon.
When I skim a page, I generally read the first line of a paragraph and if it sounds interesting, I keep reading. If not, I assume I have the chief idea of that paragraph and glide my eyes very quickly through it just to see if anything jumps out at me. Take, for example, the first few pages of Your Money or Your Life – I see a lot of anecdotes, so I read the first line of them and only read the anecdotes that seem interesting and applicable to me. If they don’t, I just skip them, period.
Apply every clear point directly to your life if you can. If you’re skimming along and suddenly stumble upon an interesting idea, immediately see where it fits in your life. If this means closing your eyes or tearing yourself away from the book for a moment, do it. You don’t have to start doing calculations or anything like that, just think about how this concept would work in your life if you were doing it. Does it make a lot of sense? Is it rubbish?
I generally find this technique to be most powerful when reading something that I know little about or that I believe contradicts my already existing perspectives. By forcing myself to stop for a second and imagine using this idea in my life, I usually end up with a better understanding of what the author is trying to get across and I often end up at least understanding the ideas better, if not completely accepting them.
Do the exercises You’ve got that notebook and pen right beside you, so take a moment and do any thought exercises that come along, even if they seem silly (often, especially if they seem silly). Actually going through the exercise in good faith almost always reveals some sort of truth about the ideas in the book – that’s really the point of including them.
One of the best examples of a book where the exercises really illustrate the point is Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. The book has tons of little exercises in it that quite clearly illustrate his concepts in your own life. Whether you agree with Ramsey’s philosophies or not, the exercises in the book enable you to at least clearly understand them.
Keep an eye out for persuasion Some personal finance and personal development authors like to laud their ideas with lots of exciting talk but don’t provide much meat. If you go through several pages and only find “rah rah” pieces that talk about how great the idea is, but there aren’t any forthcoming ideas, it’s often an indication of a book full of smoke and mirrors. Another thing to look for is personal criticism of another’s ideas – if an author has to resort to hurling insults at another group because they don’t share the same ideas, the book is almost always rubbish.
When thinking about this, I like to use The Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing as a sterling example of a book that doesn’t try to puff up its ideas with anecdotes. It lays out the concepts, explains them, then moves on to the next. The only puffery that happens at all in that book is some lauding of John Bogle. The Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing is almost unpersuasive – they let the ideas do the talking, and that’s one of the best signs you can find in a personal finance or personal development book.
Trust your gut It doesn’t matter how many people tell you how great something is, if your gut tells you it doesn’t work for you, don’t try to force yourself to believe it. Just accept it and move on. I use my gut instinct as a quick filter on a lot of ideas and in general it leads me down paths that make sense.
Take Rich Dad, Poor Dad, for example. I had heard so many references to this book that I figured there would be a lot for me to agree with inside the covers, but when I read it, I usually felt like the ideas were simply wrong for me – they just didn’t hold water. I read it, I learned from it, and I moved on.
Process your notes When you finish a book, spend some time processing any notes that you took from it. Use the internet to research any points that you want to look into further. Don’t be afraid to dive back into the book if you need to for clarification. Now that you have actually pulled out the ideas from the book, make sure that you understand those ideas and see how they really apply.
The personal finance book that I pulled the most notes from while reading it was Your Money or Your Life. It was from there that I began to learn quite a bit about voluntary simplicity and eventually it led me back to really appreciating a lot of the frugality, subsistence, and self-reliance that my parents practiced. Those handfuls of notes that I pulled from that book really opened me up to following many, many threads which really helped me to make some deep, fundamental changes to my life.
If you’re thinking of making changes, make an action plan now, not later If you’ve finished the book, pulled out some ideas, and are really excited about the ideas inside, don’t just sit those notes aside for later. Spend some time right now while you’re excited and develop some plans to channel that excitement while it’s still fresh to do some of these things.
I remember the first time I read Getting Things Done. It excited me and it really made me think, but I just put the book off to the side and didn’t really do anything about it. It wasn’t until I rediscovered it, read it again, felt that excitement again, and actually gave some of the concepts in the book a real shot while I was still excited that it began to really open up doors for me.