I used to buy books that promised to give me loads of instant (yet permanent) wisdom. Remember the scenes in The Matrix where they mastered Jujutsu or flying a helicopter in a matter of seconds? I wanted that. As a result, my bookshelf was filled with these:
- Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (Now I know exactly what to do with women)
- China Shakes the World (Now I can open a venture in China)
- The Game (Now I know exactly how to score on a first date)
- Getting Things Done (Now I am a super-performer)
- The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (Now I am totally enlightened)
They worked. In the following ways:
- I forgot what was written in the book the moment I finished it. (It’s not that bad; I could also wipe the fact that I wept a couple of times while reading the Ferrari Monk book off my memory. Wait, not yet.)
- I memorized lessons, and then forget to follow through them in real life.
- I found out that when you read books that you don’t need at the moment, they become incredibly boring.
- I hated myself for doing all the above for two decades.
Recently, out of frustration, I switched my motto from “read what I should” from “read what I want.” No more books for the sake of acquiring instant wisdom or filling my bookshelf with impressive titles. (If I want that, I can always go to a flea market and find a set of second-hand Encyclopedia Britannica. Is that why these books always look gracefully aged when we see them? By getting tan in the field?)
I started reading what mattered to me most at the moment, regardless of the topic. I welcomed satires, bitching from a bitch, confessions of an alcoholic writer, weird statistics, and comics. Impressiveness out, interestingness in.
And they started to stay in my head. I carry them (in my Kindle) all the time, I read whenever I have time to read, I take notes. I live through books, not just read them.
Somewhere in Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says the brain forms itself by strengthening the synaptic path well traveled. It doesn’t “add” information as we add layers on a cake. It gives wider and faster neuron highways to the most traveled information. Even when we add a Ferrari or Mercedes version of precious information to the highway, if 99% of existing information is, say, Toyota, then Toyota gets the way.
There is no room for superficial wisdom. In order to truly make some new information, new wisdom, or new technique part of who we are, we must DO them and grab a larger share of the neural passages in our brain. And the easiest way to do so is to read about topics that are on our mind at the moment – the “hot” topic.
Today’s (the decade’s) lesson: read what matters. And if it means following Lady Gaga (I don’t, fortunately), get used to it – or change what matters to you. Then the brain will digest the information.