Why You Should Stop Reading Book Summaries and ‘Key Takeaways’.
Why do we look for the summaries of books and articles online? Why do we search for the ‘key takeaways’ of things we feel we should have read, or the ‘key highlights’ of a Medium article?
We want to save time, right? We want the easy way out. We want the reward and not the effort. We feel we are being smart by distilling the key ideas from an unnecessarily bloated body of text. We’re skimming the cream from the milk, the wheat from the chaff, are we not?
For a long time I aligned with this way of thinking. It’s a convincing argument, and a great justification for doing so. Yet two realisations made me reconsider this position, and ultimately re-examine my whole approach to knowledge acquisition:
First realisation — you do not absorb any information, nor learn any lesson, until you slow down and internalise what you are reading/telling yourself. I will repeat that again for those, ironically, who may be skim reading this article. You will not learn anything until you slow down and internalise it.
Second realisation — thinking something to yourself is not the same as accepting that message. Telling yourself something is not the same as internalising it. Just because something is in your head does not mean you have learned or accepted it, even if you think you have.
First, understanding how I came to these conclusions.
My revelations came as I sat on a bench at dusk on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Staring at the waves lapping on the shore in the dimming light, I was struggling to keep my emotions in check about a girl I liked.
We both liked each other, and wanted to spend a lot of time together, but she also still wanted to go on dates and meet new people as well. I had told myself repeatedly that this was fine (which, in hindsight, of course it was.) We were not dating, and we were both free to meet and see who we wanted. Nothing was fixed about the situation.
Yet up to that point, my subconscious stubbornly refused to accept the message I kept telling myself. I still felt jealousy and sadness about not spending time with her, irrelevant to the argument that there were no obligations for this to be the case.
It was only once I sat on that bench facing the ocean (as I had gone out in a terrible mood) that I started honestly asking myself why I was feeling what I was feeling. By delving into my emotions, I came the closest to what I can describe as literally feeling a message sink in to my mind. After working through my thoughts for a good amount of time, something clicked.
It was like a light had been switched on in my head. I felt happiness and relief wash over me, from head to toe. The churning in my stomach went away instantly. I was on a high for the next two days. I felt on a different level to what I had been before.
My happiness became no longer predicated on what was to happen, or who I spent time with. I internalised the message I was telling myself. I wasn’t dating this girl, and irrelevant to what happened, I would be happy whether we spent time together or not. My mind had finally accepted the lesson I had been repeating in my head.
I had spent weeks telling myself to not get hung up about the situation, to accept that nothing was a given, and to just enjoy the present. But it was only once I slowed down and genuinely gave time to the idea — by sitting and ruminating on my thoughts for a long time on that bench overlooking the waves — that the lesson actually sunk in.
I believe the revelations I had in that spot will change my whole approach to life. I will never forget that moment.
Returning back to the topic at hand, it had previously annoyed me how I had read so many synopses of books, so many Youtube breakdown/summary videos of famous thinkers, so many key-takeaway articles, that I had not improved more than I should have.
But as I now understand, that is not at all how life works. It never is. No doubt you may resonate with these words. Why didn’t the ideas stick? Why can’t we remember what those videos teach us? Why was my life, your life, no better than it was before it?
Because we are trying to learn too fast. Realisation 1: You will not learn anything until you slow down and internalise it. We are so eager to drink from the firehose of knowledge that is the internet that we feel we don’t have the time to slow down and put the methodical effort and work into truly absorbing what is on offer. Why enjoy one glass of water when you can just turn the hose-pipe on your face? More water is obviously the best choice!
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Self Reliance:
“Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
To reinforce ourselves, we have to put in the work. We have to be willing to slow down, and put in the hours of study and learning. It is hard. It is boring at times. But it has to be done. If you want to truly succeed, to truly set yourself apart from the crowd, it is that effort which makes the difference. To quote once more from Emerson’s essay:
“Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times.”
Let’s take a specific example in my life. Investing. Last year, I took the very same fire-hose approach to such an important topic. I looked up the key insights of a variety of investing books, saving myself hours of reading and note-taking. I downloaded an app that presented company information in an easy to read and digestible format. I thought I had absorbed what I had seen, and felt very savvy in my approach to the topic. Suitably buoyed, I started investing.
My error was, of course, that I had not internalised the lessons I should have learned. I had consumed, not concentrated. I occasionally kept in mind some of the ideas I had come across. I forgot most of them. I would remind myself of them occasionally to justify some of my investing choices. If only I had come to my second realisation before then. Realisation 2: Telling yourself something is not the same as internalising it.
After investing very small amounts while trying to learn the ropes, I realised I was not at all confident investing any larger sums of money going forward. Why? Because I felt out of my depth. I very quickly realised I hadn’t internalised anything from the ‘insights’ I had read about, or the videos I had watched.
The investments I have made are small enough that even if I were to lose them all, it would be worth the lesson learned. Looking at them even now, gradually learning as I am, I question my thought processes at the time.
Around this same time of doubting my investing prowess, I had my epiphany on the Nice seafront. After that, I returned home and was determined to learn investing properly. I went to the bookstore and bought the The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, the bible of value-investing for the last 70+ years.
Reading through it with my new-found understanding of taking things slow, I feel I am genuinely absorbing, internalising, and learning more about investing by slowly working my way through the book, taking notes and going back over them, than I ever did looking up its key points and summary.
It is slow going, no doubt. As the stock market plummets at this very moment, I want to run off and throw my money down before the opportunity disappears. But I know that taking my time to digest the information on offer will be far more important in the long game.
As the book attempts to gradually instil in its readers, it is about securing your principal and avoiding losses, building the mental framework for decision making, and supplying emotional discipline that leads to success in investing. It’s not just about the ‘take-away’ parables of Mr Market or investing with a Margin of Safety that are important.
It is only as you internalise the entire lesson being taught, and establish a solid foundation of understanding, that you come to realise how summaries and key insights are simply the architectural flourishes of an entire structure. They are pleasing to the eye, but are useless without the underpinnings that hold them there.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in his influential book Walden:
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Consider the key insights and synopses of anything you consume as just this, “castles in the air”. They will not last on their own, and are fundamentally useless positioned as they are. But you can still work to slowly build the foundations under them by going out and actually learning the lessons from the sources they originated from.
(Coincidentally enough, I found this quotation in Graham’s book while also currently reading Walden for the first time too. I have not found this quote for myself yet, but will be interested to see the context in which it appears.)
Arguments are nuanced. It is easy to be drawn in by those hose-seekers who claim that writers have only one or two novel ideas in their books, and that the other 200 pages are the husk around these small kernels of knowledge.
There is some truth to this. Some books are more value laden than others, more original in the ideas they put forward. But there is nuance here too. You have to make that judgement as you read the books for yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it.
It is easy to believe that you can jump from important idea to important idea, taking in the best while ignoring the rest. Maximum knowledge, maximum efficiency! Hose to the face!
It is like saying if you buy when the market is at its lowest, sell when it is at its highest, and just pick the stocks that are going to do well then you’ll make loads a fortune!
Life isn’t so simple. Oftentimes we need the added chaff. We need roughage to aid our digestion. Moderation keeps us from being overwhelmed; dilution prevents too intense a flavour. Fruit may be sweet, but sugar is that sweetness refined. Yet I know which is better for my health, which will be more beneficial for me in the long-run, and which I would prefer to consume in moderation.
Similarly, I believe you will gain far more if you counter-intuitively slow down your learning, and instead grind to learn something rather than rapidly consuming it. It is better to internalise the key lessons that you want to embody, rather than desperately trying to take in the best of everything, while ultimately savouring and remembering none of it.
And if you do believe something is worth internalising, then return to it often! Read it over and over. Mull it over in your head. Write about it. Say it to yourself. But don’t falsely believe that because you are thinking and saying it to yourself that you’ve internalised it. Remember my second realisation: Telling yourself something is not the same as internalising it. It takes time to etch anything into that “mental steel” of which Abraham Lincoln wrote to his friend.
Only in time will you find that you don’t need to read it to yourself, say it to yourself, or consciously go out of your way to think it for yourself anymore. For it will eventually become embedded in who you are. In what you think and what you do. It will move from your conscious to your subconscious. And that’s real personal growth.
Hopefully these words are of some consideration in such times of quarantine and self-isolation. We have plenty of time on our hands it seems, so now may be as good a time as any to take action.