Why You Need to Read More
When I used to work at Ford Motor Company, we had a term called “efficiency”, which represents how much better year-over-year that we became at making a part. So if we had an efficiency of 2%, a part that cost us $100 to make this year, should cost us $98 to make the next year.
The somber story of the American auto industry (Tesla aside), is that while the Big 3 automakers were experiencing efficiency gains of 1 to 2% a year, the Japanese automakers were experiencing efficiency gains of 3 to 5% a year. In the table below, you can begin to appreciate the cumulative effects of the efficiency difference over 20 years. In the short-term, the difference is manageable using gimmicks and promotions, but in the long-term, the cumulative effects in efficiency is nearly impossible to overcome.
The Americans focused mainly on (short-term) performance while the Japanese focused more effort on learning. The Japanese would more often stop the assembly lines when they encountered defects to learn the root causes of those defects. In putting more effort on learning, which in the short-term seems contrary to performance, they were able to achieve much higher levels of performance in the longer term.
It’s not likely that you are building cars, but you are engaged in a skilled activity. Just like in the auto example, you could achieve significantly greater performance if you invested additional time in learning. I’ll go even further to say that the rate at which you learn and improve is your primary competitive advantage. Let’s delve into the learning process and what it might look like for us.
We are all familiar with the concept of diet and exercise. We can think of a healthy diet as good inputs, and the exercise as good outputs or application. This balance of good inputs and outputs are two parts of maintaining physical health. What is the equivalent to intellectual health and learning?
Reading maketh a full man; and writing an exact man. ~ Francis Bacon
In our learning, you want to have good inputs, and so you expose yourself to good ideas. You will usually get these ideas from reading, discourse, or instruction from good sources. Out of the three, reading is probably the most accessible and adaptable to your life and schedule. You also want to have good outputs where you apply your new knowledge. There’s a saying that you didn’t learning anything unless your behavior changes. So if it’s an intellectual endeavor, the output or application is usually in the form of you writing or teaching something. If it’s an practical endeavor, the output is in the form of you doing something better or making something.
If you need to have a difficult conversation with someone at work, read a book about how to have difficult conversations. Then apply some of what you learned to that conversation. If you need to make a difficult decision, read articles about how to make decisions. You can think of reading as a practical tool to become more effective with the challenges you are called upon to face. Someone out there has taken the time to condense decades of knowledge, experience and wisdom into a book for you, that if you read it, you can glean the lessons in a few hours.
In the process of your learning, reading is a critical input, and just like you need to eat healthy foods regularly, you need to read good ideas regularly. Many Americans finish zero books a year. The average CEO reads 50 books a year. Who is busier and yet who makes the time to learn? In an average year, I read between 50 and 75 books. (I read mostly non-fiction books, which are geared towards learning, rather than fiction books, which tend to serve a different purpose than learning.) The more I read, the more I find that I’m asked by my colleagues more and more to offer advice and perspective to challenging situations.
Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. ~ Margaret Fuller
How many books to you read a year? 5? 10? 15? For the sake of your learning, could you read more? Two books a month? More time spent on learning seems to intrude into our busy schedules focused on short-term performance. Like in the auto example, however, the incremental effort invested in learning results in amazing gains over time. You will not know your true amazing capabilities unless you invest time in the practice of learning. The faster rate at which you learn, the faster you separate your performance from those of others, the greater the opportunities afforded to you by life. The process begins when you sit down and open a book.