Tag Archives: tips

Book Learning: How to study from a book

When you decide you need to learn something, probably the first thing you think of is to find a book on the subject. It may not be the best idea, but it will probably be the first.

And sometimes it is the best way; and it’s certainly the way I’m most familiar with, so that’s where I’m starting the series.

    Step 1: Pick a Book

    In some cases this may be done for you: in class, the teacher/professor may have selected a book and ordered you to read it — in that case, all you can do is hope that it’s good.

    But if you’re learning on your own time, for your own purposes, then you need to select one. At the library or bookstore, head to the right section, then just read through the titles. Do any catch your eye? Do any seem to be addressing the specific problem you’re having? Pull the likely ones off the shelf and open them to a random page. Does the advice make sense to you? Is it too complex? Too simplistic? Does it seem to actually address the specific problem you’re having?

    You can also do a quick web search or ask for recommendations from your friends/family/coworkers/geeky friends.

    Step 2: Get a recording medium

    Just reading a book does very little good unless you actually retain and — here’s the difficulty — think about what you’re reading. You may even disagree; that’s fine, as long as you’re thinking, analysing, and processing.

    And for that, you need some way to lay your thoughts out and look at them. I prefer to have a spiral notebook, because handwriting connects to my brain better than typing. My fiance prefers to type; in that case you could keep a document on your computer, use MS OneNote, or even start a blog. You could get a voice or video recorder, and tape your thoughts (and make a podcast or video podcast of it, if you’d like). Or you can start a book club, where everyone can put forth their analyses and discuss each others’. Just find some way to make yourself process what you’re reading

    Step 3: Read. Carefully

    If a sentence, paragraph, or chapter don’t make sense to you, then stop and re-read it. What doesn’t make sense? Are they using jargon you don’t know? Go look up those words. Does the logic not make sense, you can’t follow their argument? Re-read the section, starting with their premise and following the logic step by step. Do the data seem wrong? Do a web search and see if you can find any evidence for or against their claims. Do you think there’s a glaring flaw in their reasoning? Write/record/bring it up in your book club, and explain where you think the flaw is and how your reasoning changes the conclusion being drawn. Don’t proceed until you’re sure you understand what the author is saying.

    Step 4: Apply

    You got into this because you wanted to learn something, to solve some problem you’re having. So how do these lessons help? If you’re learning some background theory, then apply each lesson or chapter to your situation: what do these statements imply about your scenario? If you’re learning a specific how-to, then what would you have to do in order to actually do these steps? What would they look like in the case of your business/product/family/life? I like to do this throughout the book, but you could do it at the end of each chapter or section if you prefer.

    Step 5: Summarize

    When you get to the end of the book, look back over what you’ve read. Look over the notes you made. What were the most important things? Why are they important? Overall, do you agree or disagree with the author? Why? What do you want to differently as a result of your reading?

There you go: the book-learning methods they never taught you in high school.

Resources for Further Reading
Writing for you, and why it works at drawing others to your blog

Picking a Name

Now you’ve got a niche, and you’re ready to start a business, launch a product, write a book or a blog, or whatever.

What do you call it?

If you’re really good with names, you can skip this one. If you’re really good with names and can explain to the rest of us how to be good with names, please leave your tips in the comments.

I’m actually stealing this exercise from a church trip that I chaperon. The trip happens every year, and each trip gets its own name.

Naming exercise

Materials needed

  • Writing materials (it’s easiest if you have one that everyone can see, such as a wiki/online document, a whiteboard, or an easel).

  • At least 3-4 friends (works with at least up to 56; might work with more)


  1. Brainstorm possible names This is a purely-brainstorming activity, so no filtering or criticism is allowed: everything goes on the list. Keep going until everyone’s tapped out.

  2. First voting round Count up the total number of possible names, and divide by three. Everyone gets that many votes. Count the votes for each name, and discard the losers. This will usually cut the list down by 30% -50%.
  3. More brainstorming What do the names with a lot of votes have in common? Can any of them be combined into one? Did new ideas come to you during the voting? Write them down now.
  4. Advocacy Everyone has a chance to come to the front of the room (or the bus, or the chat room) and give a 1-2 minute explanation of why they think this name or that name is the best choice.
  5. Second voting round This time everyone gets fewer votes; somewhere between 3-5, depending on the size of the list.
  6. Optional: more brainstorming and more advocacy This is mostly for cases where you’ve generated a lot of names — in the 75+ range. Or if you’ve got a lot of contention in the group, and need to come up with compromises. In most cases, this won’t be necessary.
  7. Final voting round Everyone gets one vote. Whichever name gets the most votes is the winner.

Sometimes you’ll generate a list of names, and everyone in the room will realize that the third-from-the-last one is The Right Name. In that case you can skip the rest of the process and walk away happily.

And this process may not generate as good a name as you could get by sitting down with someone who’s really good with names and just taking their advice. But it will always get you a Good Name. And it’s better to have a good name for an existent product than a perfect name for a non-existent product.

Resources for Further Reading
How to brainstorm – Tips

Flickr used to be an MMORPG

Sometimes (what you want to do) and (what you think you want to do) are two separate categories.

For example, the people who started Flickr thought they were making a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Game, a la World of Warcraft or Everquest. They started building it, and added (as a nifty side-feature) the ability to upload and share pictures while you were playing.

Before long, they realized that (a) the MMORPG market was saturated (b) the photo-sharing market was underserved, and (c) their product was a lot cooler in the photo-sharing market than in the MMORPG market.

So they changed. In start-up terms, it’s called a “pivot” — you stop right where you are, and go in an whole new direction. And it’s totally OK.

Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going

Actually, a lot of the times you don’t know where you’re going. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.

Sometimes you realize that you’re going the wrong way

This isn’t quite as common. But it’s no shame. Feel free to change what you’re doing if you find something better.

It’s still better to be going

When you were little, your parents told you that you should stay put if you got lost. That way someone could find you.

But you don’t do that now. If you get lost, you might pull over and look at your directions. You might drive around the block a few times, trying to spot your landmarks. But what you most definitely would not do is to stop in the middle of the road and hope that someone would point you in the right direction.

Business is no different. If you don’t know what you want to do, then make a guess and try it out. At least you’ll learn something.

Homework: figuring out what to do

The common way to live, where you graduate high school, go to college, graduate college, get a job… in that model, picking your career is fairly easy. At least for most people, it goes like this:

You pick some stuff that looks interesting in college, possibly relating to what you did in high school or what your friends are doing. Maybe you change majors a few times.
Eventually you get sick of being in college, so you stick with your most recent choice, and graduate with a bachelor’s in that field.
Then you run searches on Monster.com, Craigslist, and whatever network you have, searching for jobs that relate to your degree. Someone offers you a job (maybe in that field, maybe not) and you stick with that career forever because you don’t know how to get out of it.

Sure, maybe it’s not fun. But you didn’t ever have to think really hard, and that’s the main thing.

Monetizing yourself is harder. Like Seth Godin, I believe that you’ll be safer, happier, and wealthier in the upcoming decades if you do something remarkable, that no one else can do. Which means you need to find that sweet spot of happiness in business: the intersection of what you like, what you’re good at, and what you can get paid for.

How do you do that? It’s kind of an iterative process: you try something and see if it works. If not, you see what needs to change and try again. It won’t come to you in a revelation, but if you keep thinking about it and pursuing it, a clear picture will start to emerge.

Your Assignment

(also called action steps, if you feel like being fancy)

Journal daily (at least 1 page) on any or all of the following topics

  • What I really enjoy doing

  • What I wish I could never do again
  • What feels “right” or “meaningful” to me
  • What I wish I could do better
  • What I think I do well
  • What I did today that I enjoyed
  • Why I enjoyed those things
  • Which of the things I did were of value to others
  • How I could monetize that value

Using the time you have

Trent at The Simple Dollar posted today yesterday two days ago (It appears I’m behind on my RSS feeds) a story about a guy he knew in college, who had a dead-end low-paying job as an overnight cashier at a gas station. But when Trent went to visit him, he wasn’t bemoaning his sad situation: he was using his sketchpad and pencils to practice his skills drawing perspective, lighting, shading and so on. Now he’s a graphic designer.

I’ve been talking to one of my friends who’s in high school right now, and thinking how much of a waste (US) high school is. Since the teachers have to assume that students are only paying attention about 20% of the time, they repeat everything 5 times. Which means that there’s really no point in paying attention more than 20% of the time, even if you really do care. So out of the 6 hours of the day you have to spend in class, you only get about an hour and a quarter of useful information. The other 4.75 hours are just wasted. Unless….

What could you do in your situation?

My sister wrote her first novel in high school (the teachers thought she was taking notes). I practiced my writing (primarily in the form of satire, aimed at our teachers, but hey, practice is practice.) But you could also practice:

  • Focus Being able to pay attention to what you choose is a useful skill, and one that most of us lack. Don’t believe me? Play this game:

    1. Get a stop watch
    2. Hit the start button

    3. Think about lemons
    4. As soon as you think about anything other than lemons, hit the stop button
    5. See if you can get over 10 seconds.

So the next time you’re stuck in a pointless lecture or a useless meeting, practice your focus. Try to listen to what the speaker’s saying, and see how long you can go before you get distracted.


  • Proactivity Another highly-useful skill — the #1 habit in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — is the ability to decide what to do, instead of letting other people and events dictate it for you. Whether in a dead-end school or a dead-end job, look for places to do stuff on purpose. Ask your teacher or your boss for permission to do something different — a different focus for your assignment, or a video blog instead of an essay, or something more advanced than what you’ve been doing. Even if they turn you down every time, you’ll still get the benefit of having learned to think and choose for yourself, which will serve you well when you get out of here. And you’ll be surprised by how many times your proposal gets accepted.


  • Vision Questing This one takes some outside work, but may be one of the most useful things you can do. I wrote a while back about our culture’s lack of a vision quest or initiation to adulthood: we’re graduating high school, college, grad school, our first job, our second job, our last job… without ever learning what we could offer the world, and what we would like to offer the world. Nobody helps us identify the talents and skills that would help you find a successful niche. Nobody gives you the opportunity to think about what “success” means to you and how to achieve it. Nobody asks you what your goals are. Of course we all live lives of quiet desperation!

    But you could start. The process will take years, so you’d best start quickly. Brainstorm stuff you like to do, and stuff you find easy to do, and stuff people ask you to do. Jot down connections between them. See if any vocations suggest themselves to you, and test them out to see if you really like them as well as you thought. Journal your findings. Brainstorm some more. There are no easy answers, but if you keep asking the questions, you’ll find that the answers eventually take shape.

  • Courage I’ve written about the need for courage already, so I won’t bore you by repeating it again. But no matter where you spend your days, there are opportunities to increase your courage. Ask a cute member of your preferred sex for their phone number. Speak up in a group discussion when you don’t agree with the direction the conversation is going. Stand up to the local bully on behalf of someone else. Don’t act like everyone else around you, just for a few seconds.

    Don’t be irresponsible

    Please note, I am not advocating doing these things at the expense of what you’re supposed to be doing. You really are going to have a hard time if you graduate high school without knowing basic math, and you’re getting paid to do the work your boss gives you. So do what you have to do.

    All I’m saying is…if there’s some time left over after that… don’t let it go to waste.

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