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How to Read a Good Book

When we look back at our careers, one common thread throughout every part of our professional development has been our interaction with books. And we believe that interacting with books is a fantastic way to help with the ideal of Improving Daily Work. But all too often we see people just read books, and the information seems to leave them as quickly as it went in. So here are some techniques we’ve adopted to get every ounce we can from our reading experiences.

Jeff: I actually think I got my first real job referencing books. I was applying for my first contract job as a C# developer, and in my cover letter I wrote that I didn’t have any work experience, or certifications, or formal education in tech.
“But”, I wrote (and I’m not kidding), “you know that scene in The Matrix where they plug something into the back of Neo’s head, and when he wakes up he says “I know Kung Fu”? Well that’s me with books.”

In Make It Stick, Peter C. Brown describes how important it is to retrieve and elaborate on information in order to improve memory. He mentions one study in which students who recited a text after reading it recalled more than those who simply read it twice. Sadly, it’s embarrassing for us to recite books aloud on planes and in open workspaces, so we practice other forms of retrieval and elaboration :)

Jeff’s favorite techniques for taking notes is Mind Mapping (which, incidentally, he learned from a book called Mind Mapping, by Tony Buzan). Mind Mapping is both a form of retrieval and elaboration.

Another form of elaboration is explaining the book to peers. If you work with us for long enough you are bound to see a flurry of Slack messages or an excited hallway conversation about a book we’re reading. Even articles like this, and our other book review articles are a form of elaboration.

We’ve also found that reading and learning from books is enhanced when it’s a social activity. While we all have our own areas of interest, more often than not when one of us finishes a book we love, the rest of us will read it soon after. This allows us to dig a lot deeper into the material.

When we find techniques to be inspiring or intriguing, we actually carry out the instructions in real life. When we read Principles by Ray Dalio, we wrote out the principles we wanted to guide us. When we read Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss we took each prompt from the book and answered the questions.

Jeff: One of my favorite non-programming activities is playing music. And one of the things I love the most is playing along to my favorite albums. When you’re playing along, it’s like you are part of some of the best bands in the world. I kinda feel the same way about books. I might never meet these authors in person, or have a chance to be mentored by them. But if I really interact with the book, and follow their advice, it feels like the next best thing.

One way we use books is to help speed up the onboarding process. We’ll never be able to explain Extreme Programming (XP) principles as well as Kent Beck did in XP Explained, so we don’t even try! Instead, when new members join the team, if they haven’t read books like XP Explained, we provide a copy and ask them to read it in their first few weeks. Our “must read” booklist has changed over time.

Speaking of providing books to team members, we are big fans of paying for books. Our expense policy is that if you want a book, buy it, and we’ll cover it. We often work with clients who are trying to win “hearts and minds” during their transformations. We recommend that they find the best book, buy boxes of it, and leave them around the office with “Free” signs.

Technology and business books make up the majority of our reading list. But we’ve found that reading books that span genres to be an important ingredient as well.

Jeff: After reading The Relationship Cure, I try to pay a lot of attention to “bids” that co-workers make. While the book focused on romantic relationships, I found that some of the techniques of being attentive to people’s bids has helped me work more effectively on teams. Especially since so much of my work involves pushing people outside of their comfort zone.

We also frequently end up owning multiple copies of books. Jerimy, introduced us to his favorite way of reading: listening to the audio book while following along in Kindle. It allows you to listen to the book in the car or plane, or while walking a dog, but then still highlight and search and take notes for faster reference.


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