I always have a backlog of non-fiction books to read. Given the amount of free time that I have every day, I am guessing that it may be years before I get through them. In fact, the rate at which books get added to my backlog probably exceeds my learning velocity, creating an ever-increasing gap. It feels like a microcosm of Eddie Obeng’sworld after midnight.”

So what to do?

learning agility

I am trying to increase my velocity by applying speed reading techniques. But so far, that is probably only closing a small percentage of the gap.

Iterative Learning

Then, upon a bit of soul searching, I had an epiphany. Why do I feel the need to read and understand every single word on every single page? This runs counter to what we coach our teams to do—eliminate waste, only document what makes sense, just-in-time practices, and applying iterative thinking instead of only incremental. The answer seemed to be that I don’t feel that I have really read the book if I haven’t read every word. So what? Am I trying to conquer the thing? It seems like a very egocentric point of view.

What if I was able to let go of the ego, and try to read a book iteratively instead of incrementally? Is it even possible? Would it be effective? There are all sorts of ways to tell stories or build products—top-down, bottom-up, inside-out—each of which have their strong points. Sometimes it is most effective, for instance, to grab the user’s attention by initially giving them a nugget that might logically be placed in the middle of a narrative, and then providing necessary foundation, or by filling in the gaps as necessary. Could one apply the same process to learning from a book? I could imagine scanning through a book randomly, stopping at points that looked interesting and digesting a bit—much like I used to do with encyclopedias as a kid. Or, maybe, first reviewing the TOC for areas of interest, jumping to those sections, absorbing a bit, and then searching for any context that was missing.  This would be a completely different way to learn from a book. I couldn’t call it reading, and don’t have a good term for it, other than a new kind of learning.

This led me to thinking a little more deeply about what I am trying to get out of reading; the learning aspect of it. What if I could scan a book in a tenth of the time that it took to read it, but retain half of the content? Would that be an improvement? There seems to be some sort of formula that I am trying to maximize, like dl/dt=CVR: Rate of learning equals the “learn-worthy” content of the book multiplied by the speed that I scan it multiplied by the percent that I retain. Is the percent retained equal to the percent value obtained? Do I get half the potential value of a book if I retain half as much? I could simply define R to be the percent value and my equation still holds. Something in the back of my mind says this it is really sad to look at learning this way. Something else says I am on to something.

Of course, there are all kinds of nuances.  For example, some books build upon a foundation which must be well understood to get any value at all out of the latter sections of the book.  For others, it may be easier to skip around. Some, you may be able to get value out of scanning the TOC, or the subheadings, digesting the graphics, or just reading the intros and summaries of each chapter; for others, not so much.  Hence, in a sense, different books have different learning profiles.

The Experiment

I was intrigued enough to attempt this on a book near the top of my backlog: Steven Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, a 1280-page tome that took him ten years to write. So I did it. I didn’t “read” it. I iterated through it and digested some of it. And can honestly say that, for this particular book, I optimized my learning rate equation significantly. I can’t be sure of the total potential value that the book would have to me were I to read it in its entirely, but from what I digested, I feel like I got about 50% in about 5% of the time—a tenfold increase in my learning rate. And Steven got his royalty. Yes, I do appreciate the irony of using a new kind of learning on A New Kind of Science. And letting go of the idea of conquering a book was kind of liberating.

So, what if we look at a particular learning objective in the same way that we manage a large project or program? I am imagining a vision or an objective like “I want to become learned in Digital Philosophy” (one of my particular interests.) That vision results in the creation of a backlog of books, papers, blogs, etc. The larger of these (books) are epics and can be broken down into stories, like “Scan contents to get a sense of the material,” “Determine the core messages of the book by finding and reading the key points,” “Understand this author’s view on this particular topic,” and so on. By thinking about learning material this way, it opens up all kinds of new possibilities. For example, maybe there is another way to slice the backlog, such as by topic. If the most important thing to further my overall objective is to understand everything about cellular automata, I would assign higher priority to the stories related to that topic, even if they come from separate sources. So, my learning process takes a different path; one that slices through different material non-linearly.

Lean Startup Learning & Continuous Improvement

In fact, this all feels a bit to me like a lean startup approach to learning in that you can experiment with different chunks of material that may point you in different directions, depending on the outcome of the reading experiment. Having a finer backlog of reading components and being willing to let go of the need to conquer reading material might make possible a much faster path to an ultimate learning objective.

And so I am passing along this idea as an option for those who have a voracious desire to learn in this after-midnight world, but have a before-midnight backlog of reading material.