Martin Brochhaus

The Startup Book Club

May 26, 2019 ยป 6 min read

I have read 21 books this year. A lot of people asked me why and how, so here it is.

Why?

I have reached a point in my career where it is very hard to extract more knowledge out of social media. There was a time when I woke up in the morning and opened Google Reader and I soaked up one blog post after the other and learned new stuff about Linux, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, NGINX, uWSGI, Postgres, AWS, and so on. These times are gone. Also, Google Reader is dead and as a result people don't blog that much any more. Furthermore, social media has become infested with political turf wars and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the signal to noise ratio at acceptable levels.

My responsibilities are now much greater than just being a good coder. That means, I need to learn new tricks. Since I can't seem to do that any more on social media without poisoning my brain, I have to revert to what has worked for humans for hundreds of years: read books.

I can highly highly recommend this. It feels like being in school again, but this time you chose the topics and the teachers and you really want to be there. It is super motivating and it made me a happier person.

So how do I motivate myself to keep reading so much?

When: I read on the commute

This is a big disclaimer: I mostly read on my daily commute on the MRT. I have about 30 minutes in the morning and in the evening and I used to waste them on social media, getting anxcious about bullshit that Donald Trump did while I was sleeping. Now I stand there with my Kindle and read books and take notes. If you have a busy job but you have to drive a car to get there, I'm afraid I have no good tips for you. Most people would say to listen to audiobooks but I have personally never done that, so I can't really recommend that. I strongly believe that we need to see text with our eyes and ideally write notes with our hands in order to retain information, so audiobooks don't seem appealing to me.

Gamification: Goodreads Reading Challenge

Every year on January first, I commit to a reading challenge on Goodreads. I usually commit to 12 books a year, and I usually don't complete the challenge (the curse of all new year's resolutions). However, having that little progress bar creeping towards completion is a first little motivator that helps me to stay somewhat on track. In the beginning of the year the bar tells me "better start reading, it's a long way to go", near the end of the year the bar tells me "don't give up now, if you squeeze in four more books, you made it".

There is one problem with this: After a few books, I often run out of ideas on what to read next and the research for the next good book becomes almost as time consuming as reading the book itself.

Community: The Startup Book Club

To fix that problem, I joined "The Startup Book Club" this year. The club suggest one new book every two weeks, so I don't have to worry about choosing good books. So far, out of the 11 books that we read, I rated 9 or so highly and I got tons of ideas for other related books to read.

Getting a lot of great book suggestions is an obvious benefit of being part of a book club. There are many other benefits:

  1. I have a desire to join the discussion of the book. This keeps me on the edge and makes sure that I really read every single day. You can of course join the discussion many weeks later, but the chances to get meaningful replies will be much lower because everyone is busy reading the current book.

  2. In order to be able to discuss the book, I have started to take notes. More on that below. I have never taken notes on books before, so this is a new good habit that came as a result of joining the book club.

  3. Sometimes, the discussion threads of the books contain great nuggets of additional links and information, either confirming the book's thesis or pointing out flaws that I would otherwise not have been aware of.

  4. Sometimes I thought I didn't like a book but reading another club member's positive take on it changes my opinion a bit and leaves me happier. There is always someone who finds something positive in a book.

  5. Since I am now part of a community, I made a few new social connections. I found some great people to follow on Twitter and Goodreads, whose interests align very much with my own. Seeing what other books these people like and rate on Goodreads gives me lots of great ideas for more books to read for myself (outside of the book club).

  6. There is something about trust and "social proof" when you are part of a book club. When I am on my own, analysis paralysis keeps me digging into review after review for each book, eternally feeling uncertain if this book is going to be worth my time. However, if that member of the book club, someone I had great conversations with in the past, recommends a title, I am much more willing to just go ahead and read it no matter how good or bad the reviews are.

  7. All of the above created some pressure to keep reading. As a result, my reading speed has improved quite a bit. I can usually finish any book in a week now.

  8. A great, subtle, quality of life improvement: The time I need to invest into finishing all those books eats into the time I would usually waste on social media. As a result, I have basically stopped reading social media and feel much happier and less anxious. Books are like a virtual nicotin-plaster to ween off information addicts like me.

Technique: Taking Notes

As mentioned above, I have started taking notes on most of the books that I read. I read my books on my Kindle because I like the distraciton-free environment (no notifications, ever) and the crisp (and large) font. I underline all key information while I read a chapter. At the end of the chapter, I pick up my phone, sync between the Kindle and the iOS Kindle app and open my underlined passages in the iOS Kindle app. Then I scroll through the underlined passages, this is like speed-reading the chapter all over again. Now I open a notes taking app on my phone and distill the underlined passages into a few notes that contain the key information of the chapter. The nice thing is that I have the iOS Kindle app open and the notes taking app, so I can jump between both apps quickly while writing my notes.

So the flow of information is like this:

  1. Read one chapter, underline key passages
  2. Sync between Kindle and iOS Kindle app
  3. on iOS: Read only the underlined passages
  4. on iOS: Distill the underlined passages into a few bullet points, ideally in my own words

Sometimes, chapters already contain nice lists with bullet-points, then I just copy and paste the original content into my notes app.

Writing notes has been a significant positive force for me this year. I usually forget the contents of any book pretty quickly after finishing the book. Ask me anything about the book two months later, and I can only very broadly sumrise what the book is about, but I can't really recall any details that would help me to apply the knowledge from the book in a real-world situation.

Now I am able to remember the contents of a book for a longer period (I can still vividly remember many of the lessons from Atomic Habits, the first book that we read five months ago) and even better, when I am in a conversation and I want to get accross a point about something that I have learned from one of my books, I can quickly open my notes, skim them, and then better articulate my point.

There is a reason why we had to write down every bloody thing in school. It just works.