Why Everyone Recommends Reading…Even Though Books Don’t Work

Most people have a vague notion that they should be reading more.
That successful people nearly universally recommend reading as crucial to their accomplishments.
That there’s information out there explaining how to do just about anything that you want to do – not just in books, but in full-length university level classes available for free as well as via entrepreneurs selling their expertise and their systems through their on online businesses.
Anecdotally, I’ve found reading and attending seminars to be one of the best investments of my time, and I’m constantly updating how I run my businesses and how I operate as a coach based upon information that I pull from books, articles, podcasts, and courses.
However, it seems pretty obvious that reading is a really bad way for people to absorb information. (I think I’ve recommended Andy Matuschak’s excellent article on “Why Books Don’t Work” previously in my newsletter.)
What gives?
I think we’re seeing a bifurcation of the population.
For the folks with the cognitive habits necessary to integrate abstract information from books and lectures into their actual work, reading is one of the best possible uses of their time.
For others, it’s boring and results in very little behavioral change.
One of the biggest challenges in learning is the “transfer problem” – someone can seemingly learn information in one context and even do well in activities like testing, recall, etc. but completely fail to execute on the new information in the context of their actual skill being practiced.
We see this all the time in our coaches at SLSC. We will discuss a concept in our coaches meetings like understanding how faulty hip stability patterns can result in certain types of technique flaws in squatting. We will go over a variety of examples – watching videos and breaking down clients’ movement, having coaches demonstrate the movement flaws, having coaches come up with theoretical cues and hierarchies for making corrections, and writing progressions on the board for corrective exercises and future re-assessment protocols.
We have a lively discussion and everyone is engaged. People offer insightful comments and relate the material to their own experiences coaching.
Then, as soon as someone is struggling with a squat in an actual coaching scenario, coaches default to their standard advice of random ankle mobility drills and stretching the hamstrings – completely ignoring all of the more nuanced and more effective material that we’ve discussed in our meetings.
While this does drive me nuts, it’s an example of the transfer problem in action.
Taking insight and knowledge from one area and applying it in another – especially an area in which you have ingrained habits and behaviors – is shockingly difficult.
In Andy’s article, he discusses the necessary meta-cognition for people to be able to process information that they’re reading effectively and get around the transfer problem:
Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliar.

So, why do successful people seemingly read all the time – and recommend that others do the same?
I think we are seeing another example of selection bias as well as the aforementioned bifurcation.
Those who have the cognitive habits necessary to integrate information that they read into their actual practices are probably much more likely to be successful for many reasons. I imagine that this type of metacognition tracks with other “positive” traits like intelligence, conscientiousness, and expertise.
If you are an expert, you probably had to have a certain amount of intelligence and conscientiousness to achieve your expertise. Then, once you’ve achieved expertise, you have a much more detailed map of your subject matter and can more easily test new information against your map of the world and integrate it into your actual day-to-day actions.
Based upon this, those who develop the cognitive habits necessary to integrate new information can hit a “runaway” threshold where they are able to access constant streams of new skills, techniques and insights through reading and rapidly level up. Why wouldn’t they want to spend all of their time reading if they are immediately getting better at their chosen craft?
However, the portion of the population that struggles to integrate new information ends up stagnating and is not able to learn and iterate as rapidly resulting in a dynamic of “haves” and “have nots” where the information rich get more and more information rich.
I know some folks with expertise in education and learning read this blog. How – if at all – can we teach meta-cognition (assuming that we have an at least moderately motivated individual looking to learn)?
Or is it simply better to rely on prestige and social copying? Is this what companies mean when they are doubling down on culture? The most effective way to translate behavior through an organization is not documentation, policy and procedure – but rather execution and signaling by high status individuals and constant feedback.

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