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Give Yourself Permission *Not* to Finish a Book to Become Smarter

by | Nov 8, 2020 | Life Hacks

I used to chain myself to a book until completion.

Reading a book was a marathon. Once I started, I couldn’t put the damn book down. To spend $15 on a kindle book and not finish it was a crime against humanity. It was wastage. And financial minimalists don’t waste anything. It’s bad luck.

Then I heard Tim Ferriss explain on a episode of his podcast how there are only so many books you can read in a lifetime.

If you sit down and calculate how many years of your life are left based on the average age humans live to, then multiple those years by the rough number of books you currently read annually, you’ll be shocked.

Bottom line: the number of books you get to read in your lifetime is pretty small.

I was devastated to learn how many books I had left until the end of my life. It’s not that many in the grand scheme of things.

It’s kind of frightening when you measure your life based on the number of books you have left. But it doesn’t have to be.

Finishing a Non-Fiction Book Is Mediocrity

I used to be obsessed with finishing a book. The challenge is most books you read take hours and hours to complete. If the books sucks, why would you keep giving away your time to it? It makes zero sense.

Part of the reason is the dollars you spend. I would spend $15 and then chase the author down the street until I felt like I had recouped the cost.

If a book didn’t give me what I was looking for at the start, I’d keep reading it, hopelessly expecting to fall in love with it in a later chapter. I was hopelessly romantic about books.

By accident, I stopped finishing books.

I accepted the fact it was okay to buy a book and read a little, before never reading any more. The only book sin I wouldn’t allow myself to commit was to buy a book and never read any of it.

My rule was this: If I read a few pages then that was my purchase paid for.

The start of a non-fiction book is usually the best bit. It’s where you learn about the one big idea of the book. It’s where the author and publisher have to get your attention and hook you.

After the beginning, the rest of the book, for the most part, is filler.

When you look at books as one chapter with one big idea, and not much else, you approach reading differently.

It turns out my approach to reading is shared by a few others. Silicon Valley Investor, Naval Ravikant, spoke on a podcast recently about he doesn’t finish books anymore.

He says “I let go of the guilt of needing to finish books.”

Podcaster, Tim Ferriss, reports having a similar philosophy towards reading. “Give books a chance to fail or persist.” Economist, Tyler Cowen, thinks finishing books is strange too.

Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers. I start ten or so books for every one I finish. I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it. I am ruthless in my discards.

The founder of billion-dollar fintech startup, Stripe, Patrick Collison says, “I maybe start half the books I get, and I probably finish a third of the books I start. And that works out to finishing 1–2 books per week.”

You limit your potential when you limit the number of books that can positively affect your life.

Finish the books you can’t put down, and let the rest of the books you encounter come and go as required.

Most books will never change your life.

Try a Four Minute Book

Nik Goke click baited us with the name of his website, Four Minute Books — except it’s for real. The concept is actually powerful.

If the 4-minute version doesn’t grab you by the curly ones, the full-length book sure as hell won’t. I started using Nik’s site long before I had ever read a word he wrote. The idea was just too tempting. I used Four Minute Books to grasp the key concepts.

This helped me look smart in front of people who thought I’d read some of the books I was quoting. What they didn’t know was, as a writer, I was quoting books I’d only ever read four minutes of.

A Bad Book Will Make You Watch Netflix Instead

The co-founder of tech investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, Marc Andreessen, provides a different perspective to finishing books.

He finds the problem of feeling obligated to finish a book is it kills your reading motivation. An unhelpful book causes you to “stall out on reading in general,” says Marc.

If you treat reading books as a linear process it’s easy to get stuck on a book you don’t really like, and then avoid reading it until you build up enough willpower to go back to it. Marc says this phenomenon makes him want to stop reading, and go and watch tv. “Before you know it, you’ve stopped reading for a month and you’re asking ‘what have I done?!’”

The same happens to me. A bad read stops my book flow. The only way for me to get back to reading again is to quit the book that broke my process, and start a new one that makes me want to keep reading.

One bad book can force me off reading books for a month.

Think of Chapters in Books like Blog Posts

Marc Andreessen’s partner at his firm, Chris Dixon, provides another game-changing idea for reading books.

Chris thinks of a book like an entire blog. The chapters of a book are individual blog posts.

“I’m not gonna read every post in the blog either, right? I’m only gonna read interesting ones.”

Once you’ve read the good blog posts of the book you can just throw the rest of the book away. It’s rare you find a book that has more than two good blog posts in it. If you do, maybe that’s the book you want to read until the end.

Steal Your Friend’s Kindle Highlights of the Book

Another cheat-code for reading is to ring up your friend Drew. We all have a Drew in our lives. The guy has read everything under the sun. He’s a polymath. He should have been on Big Bang Theory. He should be friends with Genius Turner who really is a genius (no jokes).

Why not get a copy of your friends’ highlights of the book you’re going to read?

I often find the best bits of a book are in someone else’s highlights. Start with the highlights and then decide if you want to invest your precious time and energy into reading more of the book.

A Few Books to Inspire You

All this book talk has got me frothing at the mouth. Let me save you even more time and share a few books you’ll love, and that I’ve actually finished. Remember to be ruthless if you start reading them and don’t agree with me.

  • Stealing Fire, by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler
  • Hell Yes Or No, by Derek Sivers
  • The Third Door, by Alex Banayan
  • Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
  • Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill
  • The Obstacle Is The Way, by Ryan Holiday
  • The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
  • Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, by Sarah Knight
  • Choose Yourself, by James Altucher

Final Thought

Reading can make you a lot smarter. You can read about other people’s experiences and borrow their strategies. You can learn ideas that might just change your life.

The trouble is you only have so much ‘book time’ in your life.

So the answer, according to many of the people mentioned in this article and my own experience, is to finish fewer books. Let go of your darlings. Read what moves you. Discard books that make you feel nothing.

Give a book a 1–2 chapters chance to get you going. Otherwise, dump their ass, break up, don’t say sorry and move onto the next book.

Romanticizing about finishing books is holding you back from becoming smarter and discovering those 1–2 books you’ve waited your entire life to find and devour.

Your life is too short to finish every book.

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