How to learn from reading

We can learn just about anything in life if we will simply read and then reflect on what we have read (Warren Bennis). But we must read with the intent to learn.

Here are some suggestions on how to do that.

1. Read

He who does not read is no better off than those who cannot read (Mark Twain).
Those who do read are better off than those who can read but do not (Don McMinn).

Make reading a regular part of your weekly routine. Some people read daily, others read for longer periods of time on the weekend. Make reading a priority, otherwise you won’t do it.

2. Select good material that you can learn from.

There’s a difference between reading for entertainment and pleasure and reading to learn. I read the daily newspaper to relax and catch up on the news, but I don’t read it to learn. I read a few novels every year but I don’t anticipate that I’m going to learn a lot; I read them for pleasure.

Determine that you are going to read with the intent to learn.

First, you need to define your personal intellectual nutrient base. Just like we have a physical nutrient base that keeps us physically healthy, we need a source for intellectual nourishment.

The next challenge is to find material that we can learn from. Don’t underestimate how hard this can be; most printed material is intellectual cotton candy. There are several options for finding good material:

  • Get recommendations from friends who enjoy learning through reading.
  • Read book reviews (the Sunday New York Times has an entire section on book reviews).
  • Identify periodicals that feed your mind. I enjoy National Geographic, Smithsonian, and the Harvard Business Review.

Discover what type of book works for you. For instance, I do not enjoy reading a large book on a single subject; I just don’t have the interest or the patience. I’m a generalist so I would rather read three shorter books about three different topics than one long book about one. Years ago, David McCullough wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. I love New York City and have always admired the bridge, so I started reading the book but stopped after about 40 pages. It’s 560 pages long. I wanted to learn more about the bridge but I didn’t want to know that much more. So I abandoned the read.

Discover your personal reading preferences.

3. Develop a process that will help you retain what you read – read and mark.

I once asked a group of business executives, “Who has read Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great?” About 70 percent raised their hands. I then asked, “Can anyone recall just one key principle from the book?” I got blank stares and silence filled the room. Finally, one man mumbled something about “that bus thing.” Reading Collins’s great book had no lasting value for these executives because they did not retain what they read.

I’ll never forget that moment. It taught me that it’s not sufficient to just read books, we need a system that will help us retain what we learn.

I’ve developed the following system that works for me. Use it as a general template and craft your own system.

  • Before you start reading, take about 10 minutes to anticipate what you hope to learn. What is the topic? Why have you chosen this book or periodical? Who is the author? Why should you spend time reading this material? How might it impact your life? Study the table of contents to get an overview of the book.
  • Read the book with pen in hand. When you read something that speaks to you, circle or underline it and then make marks in the upper/outside corner of the page (one mark means “this is good”; two marks mean “this is really good”; three marks mean “this is outstanding.”) Also, in the margins, write key words or thoughts.
  • Each person has his own reading/attention-span. Read until your mind begins to drift and then set the book aside, or switch to another book. I normally focus on three books at a time. I’ll read one for 20 minutes, then switch to another for 20 minutes. With practice, you can increase your ability to concentrate while reading.
  • Quickly find links between what you read and real life. How can the thoughts espoused in the book be lived out in real life? If often helps to share with others, what you have learned.
  • When you finish reading the book, put it aside for several weeks.

4. Journal key thoughts

Re-read the book, focusing on those areas that you marked. This should take about 1/5 the amount of time it took you to read it the first time. Record in your thought-journal, significant thoughts and passages from the book. [My thought-journal is a nice leather bound book with lined pages. Recent studies indicate that we learn more and remember more if we write longhand rather than type information into a computer. Follow this link for more on this topic: ]

Set the journal aside for several weeks.

Re-read your journal entries, highlight salient thoughts, particularly those that you want to memorize.

5. Memorize key thoughts

Knowledge without memory is useless so you must memorize key thoughts and concepts. When committed to memory, thoughts will continue to grow, mature, and become clear through the years.

For instance, years ago I memorized a significant thought proffered by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in your mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” When I first memorized the sentence I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it lingered in my mind for years and one day it came alive. Now it gives me solace and peace of mind.

More recently I memorized this sentence: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” It had an immediate impact on my conversations and social interactions.

So, as you re-read your journal entries, highlight salient thoughts, particularly those that you want to memorize.

Develop a memorization system that works for you. Some people use index cards. I use Evernote software [] so I can store and access my notes on my computer and mobile phone.

The key to memorization is repetition and review.

6. Apply knowledge to life

Finally, you must bridge the knowing-doing gap because knowledge without application is minimally useful.

Authors Pffeffer and Sutton wrote a terrific book titled The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (2000). It’s a great read that exposes a conundrum we all face: why do we have such difficulty in doing what we know we should do? Why do we know but we do not do?

Granted, not all knowledge can be applied to life. For instance, I recently learned that 750,000 people died during the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad during WWII. I’ll have a hard time putting that factoid to practical use. But the more we can make connections between knowledge and life, the better.


  1. Read
  2. Select good material
  3. Read and mark
  4. Journal key thoughts
  5. Memorize key thoughts
  6. Apply knowledge to life

8 Replies to “How to learn from reading”

  1. Thanks Don for this blog on reminding me the importance of reading. This is my second consistent year in reading through the Bible, and I use to read books on leadership (especially all of John Maxwell’s); but life got hectic with me taking care of our grandson & elderly parents. I need to get back to reading.

    1. Shirley, Life has a way of hijacking our intentions. I hope all is well with you. I have fond memories of spending time with you and Rob

  2. I was recently complemented by an individual for a great job training a volunteer. Apparently, the person trained had applied what they had learned and was making a positive impact. I explained to the kind individual that all I did was relay information in a meaningful way and it was the lady who applied it in her own life that was making the positive difference. As you wrote, application in life is the key.

    1. Thanks, Jim, for kind and encouraging words. I wish I had learned how to learn from reading decades ago. I would be a better man today. Kind regards, Don

  3. Don,

    I”ve enjoyed getting your weekly posts. I recently had back surgery and fell into a “reading lull” for several weeks and my thinking has become lethargic. Thanks for the kick in the butt. By the way, I’ve read several of the 12 books you’ve recommended. Fantastic choices!


    1. Greg, sorry about your back surgery. Something like that can get us off track. In several weeks I’ll post about the books I read in 2017. I think you’ll see some interesting books listed. Don

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