Reading, Actually: The Lost Art of Reading in 21st Century Culture

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – Mark Twain


We live in the most amazing time in history for knowledge availability. With the advent of the Internet, opportunities for learning have skyrocketed. Many of the most respected universities have made courses available free online. [1] Amazon offers tens of thousands of books for free online just by downloading them to your Kindle or to a Kindle application that runs on almost any platform. The Internet Archive (archive.org) has 2.5 million free books.

You would think that as a society we would be advancing now more than ever in terms of knowledge, creativity and educational excellence. In fact, the opposite is true. We live in perhaps the least educated time in recent history. While many people seem to know high school Math, English, and Science, a basic level knowledge of facts that would have once been considered essential is now scarce. For example, in a recent survey by Newsweek magazine, 29 percent of respondents couldn’t even name the vice president. [2]

The secret is that the solution lies right at our fingertips. It’s not about improving the public school system. While a laudable goal and certainly worth continuing to attempt, it’s been tried repeatedly for generations with marginal results. The decline of people’s intellect is often blamed on the rise of cable television and the Internet, but it began long before that. While as a society we have learned the skill of reading, we have no longer acquired the practice. Sure, people read, but usually as a last resort — on the plane, when you’re sick, “to fall asleep.” Most people abandon all attempts at reading as soon as some alternative media is even remotely available.

Have you met people that seem larger than life? There is something different about them that you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has to do with something that we all have access to. It’s been posited all over the Internet (but I can’t find a source) that the average CEO reads 4-5 books a month. People like Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta Airlines who always asks people in interviews, “what are the last three or four books you’ve read, and what did you enjoy about those?” [3] Consider this then: boosting your career path and changing your own world (and our world) may be as simple as making a commitment to lead a literary life.

The thing about literary people is, their life and perspective is far expanded beyond the small reach of their immediate borders. They see things through others eyes and in other times and places. If you want to go beyond a limited view of the world, your own immediate experiences, your own restrictive cognitive reality, the experiences of your very own last year or two, reading will do this for you. Here are some suggestions:

Read across a wide spectrum: Don’t stick to one subject area, one author, one time period or one genre. Of course you have limited time. But don’t just read tech books or business books. Human endeavor and the practice of it has been recorded faithfully for generations and you have ready access to the real words of these very real people. Have you ever wondered how Benjamin Franklin could be so productive and how he balanced his time between politics, religion, science, writing, diplomacy and music? You can read about it in his own words – the book is free on the Amazon Kindle. [4]

Dig deep: Consider picking a subject area you want to excel in and go for it. Don’t expect instant results. Developing respectable expertise may well take several months. The great thing is there are so many ways to do it. Download, buy, go to book sales, use the library, browse the Internet, follow the “1-3-5” method (below), read articles, listen to podcasts, dig deeply in one focus area and allow your brain, your experience and your unique perspective to be combined into your own special zone of competence.

Write: As Thackeray said “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” As you read, write. This could be your own reflections or simply repeating what you’re reading. If you want your thoughts to coalesce into something more than just repeating trivial tidbits that everyone already says or knows, you will allow your brain to come up with something unique that only you can contribute through writing.

Have a plan: Don’t expect to become literate without effort. Make a plan. Decide When. Choose a place and time to devote to reading. Make it regular. It could mean getting up a half hour earlier before the house wakes up, setting aside your lunch, or staying late at work. Stay devoted to it. Consider it just as critical as your other endeavors. If you’re interrupted, don’t write it off: “well, I was only reading.” Make it a priority. Decide What. If you have a goal for educating yourself on a topic, make a plan and stick to it but be willing to adjust your plan as you discover new sources of knowledge.

The “1-3-5” method: Do these three at the same time and you will get maximum exposure to a subject area. Your cognitive integration of the subject matter will surprise you.

  • Pick 1 respected tome about the subject and absorb every word digging very deeply, write down your thoughts as you go through it, perhaps even rewrite parts of it, write chapter summaries, blog and tweet about it.
  • Pick 3 related shorter books about the same topic and read them cover to cover but as quickly as possible while you’re reading the first book. Don’t pause to reflect, just fire-hose them down.
  • Find 5 other books that are related tangentially and skim them, reading some parts in detail but simply skimming other parts. Your brain’s ability to integrate all of the subject matter in new, fresh and interesting ways will surprise you. Your ability to discuss the subject at hand at close to an expert level will position you as that expert in your colleague’s minds.

Follow the path: If the author you’re reading makes you jump out of your seat in excitement, find out what else that author has written and find out who were the big influences on that author. Don’t blow off footnotes or bibliographies, especially now that much of your reading can be done while online. They are there to help you develop a unique and integrated view of what you’re reading, connecting different subjects and explaining cross-cultural references. If you love Tom Clancy, don’t stop there. With a little digging you will find that Freddie Forsyth was a major influence on him and now you’ll have a whole new world to enjoy.

Use all the tools: Don’t miss out on the tools available to you. For example, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. There are apps to let you read Kindle books on any PC or device or using a browser. This means you can read anywhere. On the bus, at the dentist, waiting in line, at Starbucks, waiting for the wife to try on seventeen outfits, at the symphony, in a boring meeting, at the company quarterly. Skimming through books works especially well during these times.

We live in an age of vast accessibility that even our parents and grandparents could only dream of. Take advantage of it. Now more than ever you can expand your borders beyond the prison of a non-literary life.


[1] “400 Free Online Courses from Top Universities,” Open Culture OpenCulture.org (November 26, 2011), http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

[2] Andrew Romano, “How Dumb Are We?” Newsweek (March 20, 2011), http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/03/20/how-dumb-are-we.html

[3] Adam Bryant, “He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects”, The New York Times (April 25, 2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26corner.html

[4] Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. [Lexington, Ky.]: SoHo, 2010. Digital.

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Ten Things To Look For in a Software Developer

“When I hire someone, that’s when I go to work for them.” — John DiJulius

I have interviewed hundreds of developers over the last twenty years and it’s either fascinating and exciting and a ton of fun OR it’s the dregs and you wish it was over a minute into it. I have roughly an hour to determine your depth, breadth, character and skills.

That’s no easy task so here are ten things I hope for:

Get my attention: This is your time. I don’t want to be bored. Dig right in. Let’s do some work. Show me how we’d engage if you were on my team. Chit chat is fine. For about 30 seconds. Now I want to know that you’ll take the floor and show some thought leadership.

Don’t try to impress me with jargon: I’m not really impressed with acronyms and jargon and so-called impressive sounding system names and technologies. I’d be much more excited if you did the opposite: take a complex system, break it down for me and tell me in minutes how it functions and the role you played in implementing it.

Make it simple: You’ll be working with a variety of people, both technical and non-technical. Can you make a complex technical system understandable? Will people be intimidated by your technical prowess and be afraid to look stupid and engage you with questions? Or are you inviting and encouraging, making sure that all variety of people enjoy seeking you out because you make them feel valued and supported?

Tell me what you’re all about: What is your passion, what’s the theme I can recognize that you’ll bring to the table on my team. Are you a systems guy? Can you take anything apart and put it back together? Are languages your thing? Are you über passionate about the difference between static and dynamic typing, between functional and OO languages? Are you super-excited about HTML5 and can explain why it will change the world?

Make me trust you: If you’re going to be on my team, I’m going to have to trust you to represent me (and my boss, and his boss). Can I do that? Can you tell me of a time where you came through for your team because you were the trustworthy one? If I promote you to a position of leadership, will people follow you? Do you know how to be hard to soft people and soft to hard people?

Tell me where you’re going: Although I’m curious about where you’ve been, of much greater interest to me is where you’re going. Hook me on your vision. Clearly you’re ambitious (right?). Show me that your ambitions will be something our team can rally around and prosper from. Do you have a vision for where Big Data and High Performance Computing will converge to change the world? Bring me into that vision. Excite me. Turn the tables on me. Instead of you trying to hook me into hiring you, make me scared to let you out of the room before I give you an offer.

Look like you belong: We’re a consulting company. It’s not about jeans and t-shirts and stacks of Mountain Dew cans. We speak very often directly with the CTOs of Fortune 500 companies. Will I be eager to bring you to a client site? Do you have the social maturity to represent my team well? Show me that you have the depth to do more than just crank out code. Let me see in my mind’s eye how you’ll be engaging with clients or other teams in the company.

I want to hire YOU: I don’t want to see the Wizard. I want to get to know the person behind the curtain. So let’s get real. Don’t try to convince me you’re someone you’re not. Don’t embellish all the great things that you did if in fact you really didn’t. That’s not who I want to hire. If I hire you, I want to hire YOU. Our relationship has to start off with integrity. I’m not going to embellish the position I’m hiring for. Equivalently, I want to know exactly what you’re all about.

Have fun: I want thoughtful people on my team. But not dull people. Show up with confidence and engage me. Show me that your teammates will enjoy working with you and that clients will genuinely like paying for your time. If you stumble or lose your train of thought, crack a joke. I care far more about you as a person than you being perfect.

Know when to listen: All of the above are action items. Almost the most important of all though is, can you listen? Will you take direction? During our time together, I love it if you take the floor and show me something. I want to not want the time to end. I want to leave our time excited to get you on board because you did all of the above. But key to that is, did you take the time to listen as well?

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