updated March 2018.
I’ve never been the type to have a New Year’s resolution. I hate the swarms of new people in my gym from January to mid-February. but I came up with a kind of resolution a few years ago that totally turned my life upside down. now I set this goal every January 1: read 50 books per year (about one book per week).
You are reading: Reading 50 books a year
as ernest heminway said, “there is no friend more loyal than a good book”, and i have discovered that the benefits of reading extend beyond friendship, entertainment or even mental stimulation. In a nutshell, they bring ideas and opportunities that are hard to even put a value on.
I don’t have to sell myself too much on the benefits of reading. but just in case, here’s a summary:
- mental stimulation
- stress reduction
- vocabulary expansion
- memory improvement
- stronger analytical thinking skills
- improved focus and concentration
- better writing skills
- peace of mind
- free entertainment
with most goals, specificity helps. when you read a list of benefits like this, you say “yeah, I should read more”. but “read more” is a recipe for failure, because other priorities will emerge. you will be busy when you read 50 books a year, that’s a measurable goal and you know how you’re comparing.
Personally, my goals should be measurable. I can’t just “lose weight,” “read more,” or “try new things.” I need to lose 10 pounds, read 50 books, or go to Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes twice a week. I think most people are the same. if you really want to change, you need something to measure, something to define if you have been successful or not.
but why 50 books a year?
I like the number 50. It’s about one book per year. is a nice round number and sounds impressive (better than 30 or even 40).
You could also say, “read a book a week,” and that would be more or less the same thing. except that I think it has some drawbacks, notably that if you define the pace at which you read, you will define the books you choose. some books take more than a week. some less should allow themselves the flexibility to binge a few books in a week sometimes and skip a week because they’re busy or traveling at other times.
some you could read too much and get a little ahead of schedule. but also, if I’m too strict with “1 book a week,” I’m less likely to choose books that are too challenging. Ayn Rand Shrug Atlas would be hard to finish in a week (unless I drop all the real work I’m doing). therefore, I set my target to a more rounded 50 to account for variation in complexity and length.
what happens when you read 50 books a year?
Here’s some math: 50 books times 200 pages per book equals 10,000 pages. 10,000 pages equals a lot of words, and some of those words will help you.
It is almost certain that throughout the year you will read something related specifically to a problem you are trying to solve. It seems like a lot of effort to find a very specific solution to a very specific problem, but if you make a habit of reading, it will come naturally. you won’t even need to search for a solution when the time comes. that makes the whole process worthwhile.
I find that I now apply ideas to situations much more naturally. Due to the unnatural amount I have read about behavioral science, I am able to apply frameworks to problems that are best solved using psychology and behavioral science. Due to the abnormal amount of content I’ve read about analytics and growth online, I have a better intuitive idea of how these things work than someone who only looks at things on a tactical level.
Similarly, you can solve your own problems on the spot with good books (rather than good articles). Moving away from the modern, if a book has been around long enough, it’s almost guaranteed to have some sort of universal or at least lasting value.
When you read the meditations of Marcus Aurelius or even the classics of the last century, you can extract patterns and ideas that have been around for millennia.
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More importantly, when you read a good breadth, you connect topics and you see that, wow, what Marcus Aurelius talked about so long ago is about the same thing as today’s neuroscience or social psychology or probability theory. , or whatever. .
I’m spitting on the themes and genres there, but the point is that having a good understanding of multiple disciplines helps you connect dots in patterns more easily than those with a narrow worldview (if all you have is a hammer…)
There are other subtle benefits, such as the following.
expanding your horizons
In addition to reading about specific things that will help you in specific ways, reading 50 books a year really broadens your horizons.
Inevitably, reading will lead you down some unexpected rabbit holes and you will emerge with new interests and insights. I am now strangely well informed about John F. Kennedy and American history during the cold war. I mainly read to improve my business and marketing skills, and the cold war has nothing to do with it. but it has greatly influenced how I think about certain things. I also went down a rabbit hole of hollywood history a few months ago. Random interests like these help spice up your conversations, and reading classics helps you connect and converse with just about anyone.
become eloquent and surprising
You will articulate better if you read 50 books a year. once you read enough, you’ll pick out patterns that make certain authors more eloquent than others. this includes organization, sentence structure, word choice, and voice. once you spot these patterns, you don’t even have to work to incorporate them into your own communications. it just happens.
Writers read a lot, and good writers read a lot of good writing.
substance over noise
When you read 50 books a year, you will succeed. You will develop a depth and breadth of knowledge. reading concise blog posts will not make you successful. Sure, reading Seth Godin’s blog posts can inspire you, but you really should be reading 50 books a year if you want to be a smart and capable person. otherwise, you will be full of inspiration and lack substance. the true recipe for both failure and quackery.
Most importantly, reading 50 books a year will deactivate the power that clickbait still has. I hate clicking the bait. journalism is at a depressing low point right now, but people are hungry for depth and quality. when you read 50 books a year, sure, clickbait still bugs you. but you can be more zen about it because you know you’re in for real content in the form of an 800-page paperback on teddy roosevelt.
reading 50 books a year defeats the illusion of knowledge.
You’d think it would make you feel so much smarter, but it really makes you realize how much you don’t know. however, this is a good thing. I bet some of your facebook friends think they are political pundits because they read a blog post that said obama is a socialist without a US birth certificate. no, these people are not certifiably crazy (but close). but they could probably pick a book or two this week, and it would help them be less virulent.
how to read 50 books a year
Let’s talk about the process. it’s not as bad as you think. all you need to do is create a habit. I also talk about this with how I learn Spanish. never rely solely on ambition or motivation or vague plans to “improve”. make that shit a routine in your life so it feels weird when you break it.
actually, 50 books a year is equivalent to about 45-60 minutes of reading a day. maybe a little more, if you add weekends (I usually read about an hour on weekends). how long is your trip? I walk 30 minutes to and from work and always put on an audiobook. done. the process really doesn’t take as long as you think, and if you cut out an hour of television and replace it with challenging books, you’ll thank yourself.
I also find that if you create the habit at a certain point in your daily routine, it always succeeds. I read for 20 minutes in the morning while I drink my coffee. just before meditation and just after waking up. sometimes I read more if I feel like it (at night or whatever), but I never miss a morning.
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There are many things you can do to improve your life, but reading 50 books a year may provide the most overall value. you get the best results from what you put into it. if you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, don’t try to give up ice cream or go to the gym 8 days a week. you will fail try reading just a little a day and reap the benefits readers have enjoyed for centuries.
2018 update: how I read now (and why it’s less than 50 books)
I no longer read 50 books a week. I set my goal at a more moderate level of “30 books per year,” which is just over 2 per month. that’s still a lot of books, so don’t be mad at me for abandoning my original intent. I read 50 books a year for (I think) 5 or 6 years. lots of books!
I only read 30 now because I am taking specific courses and educational activities related to my goals. I want to learn Spanish, Krav Maga and get better at growth (and specifically data science). none of those are easy things to learn, and they take time. I sacrificed some of my book reading for other forms of education.
Here’s the thing: the time I spend reading 50 books a year is still being used, just for other forms of education.
Looking back at this article I wrote in college (third year I think), I’m impressed by my ambition to read so much, but I’m even happier that my past self has been carved out. such a significant amount of time in my day to focus on growth and self-improvement. developing that habit and that priority was more important than the kind of arbitrary educational format of the books (although I do think there is a particular depth and precision to the transfer of information that you get from the books).
next year I will probably read even fewer books as i a) switch to active ways of learning with language and data science and b) switch to reading denser books and rereading my most valuable favorite books.
you can watch video lectures, meditate, play duolingo or take spanish lessons on skype, it doesn’t matter too much. it’s really just a process of carving out that time and being deliberately dilettante & scholar. learn shit, you know?
second update 2018: what am I focusing on this year
I decide to set my goal this year at 24 books. 2 per month still a lot, but not 50.
I want to a) focus on other courses and skills that take time and depth, b) reread some of my favorite books this year, and c) read some more dense than normal books.
For my first point, I am learning Spanish (lessons 2-4 times a week plus other activities), taking krav maga and kickboxing classes, taking reforge & a course on machine learning (I haven’t decided which course. convince me if you have a good one), and focus on more public speaking (through improv classes, among other things). I have a busy life. reading is still a priority, but other things are also important.
point two, there is a maxim in taleb’s new book (skin in the game) that rereading brings more value than reading new books (if the value is enough in rereading) because of the way memory works. so i want to reread some of my favorites (including taleb’s antifragile and black swan).
point three, I want to read something more challenging. It was easy to read 50 books (give or take) when I was just starting out in marketing, I read a lot of Seth Godin and mostly wrote 200 pages. I have a few on my shelf that I’ve wanted to find that are more difficult: great 700 biographies, technical books on data science concepts, and some classics that will take me a while to understand. I’m indexing quality over quantity now.
However, you can keep track of my books here: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/10765202-alex
1 I recently found out that I am not the creator of this challenge. not even close. in fact, julien smith wrote an amazing blog post about it a few years ago that i just discovered: https://inoveryourhead.net/one-book-a-week-for-2007/
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