Have you ever read a book which completely changed the way you live? How about one which made you feel uncomfortable? Or one which filled you with the thrill of what could be? Do you know how to read for success?
For most of my young adult life, I didn’t read. While I used to read a little as a child, as I grew up I read less and less. Eventually I stopped reading for pleasure entirely. Until one day, I met someone who read. A lot. Meeting this person inspired me to start reading again.
And once that happened, everything changed for me.
This is the story of how I learned to love reading and what it did for me.
My Childhood Reading Habit
As a child, I read occasionally. My father comes from a family of readers, he inspired my mother to start reading, shortly after they met. Growing up, my parents bought books for me and my brother to read. My father also insisted on paying for a “Highlights” subscription. “Highlights” is an American children’s magazine which has been in publication since 1946. It contained interesting stories and sections such as “Thinking”, which encouraged… thinking and “Do It Yourself” which showed you how to… do it yourself. My favorite section was “Spot The Difference”, two black-and-white images were placed side by side and you were supposed to… spot the differences between them. I loved the magazine.
So I did read occasionally throughout my childhood, but I had another hobby to which I dedicated most of my time. Playing video games.
I played tons of them. I was inexhaustible when it came to gaming. I could sit enraptured in front of the television screen working away at the remote control for hours and hours. I beat almost every game I owned. When I wasn’t doing homework or reading, which was most of the time, I was playing video games.
But I still made some time for reading. As a child, I read Harry Potter, The Edge Chronicles, Narnia and a few other books. Once in junior high I even spent my recesses reading in the library.
Then something happened. An event which disintegrated my reading habit and scattered it to the winds for more than ten years.
I went to high school.
In high school I made my first close-knit group of friends. Until high school, I had never belonged to a group of friends, I’d always been a loner. But in high school I met some amazing people with whom I ended up sharing my happiest times as a teenager. And we all loved video games.
Shortly after starting high school and making this group of friends, gaming completely took over my recreational time. Every weekend, my friends and I would get together at one house or another and play video games until early in the morning while eating pizza, tacos (I grew up in Mexico City) and potato chips. It was awesome.
But I also stopped reading entirely. From the time I was 15 until the time I was 26 I don’t remember ever picking up a book to read out of pleasure or curiosity to discover what lived between its covers. I completely forgot about reading. My friends and the video games we played together, became the center of my teenage joy.
This might read like I’m regretful, far from it. The friends I made as a video game-playing teenager were, and continue to be, the closest friends I’ve ever had. I’m happy I dedicated my carefree teenage years to hanging out with them while sharing in an activity we all loved. I felt loved and accepted just as I was, with these friends. And that’s priceless. That’s what humans live for.
I’m telling this story to show how the reading habit can imperceptibly slip away from us if we don’t nourish it. Reading is an active activity, not a passive one like watching television. Reading takes all of your energy and focus, unless we’re aware of the value of reading, other, easier, activities can readily take its place. Again, like watching television. And unlike playing video games, wherein the reward is immediate, the rewards of reading take far longer to materialize. But materialize they do.
I didn’t make reading a habit again until I was 26. And it only happened after I met a person who showed me the value of reading.
My Ignorance Reflected In The Face Of Curiosity
What happened when I was 26? I went to graduate school in Los Angeles, California.
After graduating from college, I worked my butt off to accrue the credentials and skills to apply to one of the best chemistry PhD programs in the world and be accepted by it. Once there, I met brilliant, dedicated people from all over the United States and the world; people who all wanted to make impactful contributions to science. One of those people was Tysito (not his real name).
Tysito is American. He attended New York University in Abu Dhabi. Yes, New York University has a campus in Abu Dhabi. While attending university there, Tysito travelled around the Middle East and Asia with his friends and classmates. He had lots of stories to tell from his collegiate experience, like swimming in the Dead Sea after running a marathon relay race with his friends. We became fast friends.
As our friendship progressed and I learned more and more about Tysito. I discovered that he had an insatiable curiosity. I also learned that, growing up, he didn’t have access to cable television. All of the American cartoons I grew up watching in Mexico, he had never heard of.
Tysito had grown up reading.
He had read (almost) every book I had read and then some. When I spoke to Tysito, I came face to face with my own ignorance, which was reflected off of Tysito’s shining curiosity. He knew about subjects which I didn’t even know existed! In other words, Tysito knew what I didn’t know I didn’t know. Whenever I admitted that I didn’t know what he was talking about he would patiently explain things to me. Like the fact that spiders can weave spiral orb webs or cobwebs. Spiral orb webs are the classic wheel-shaped webs found in gardens. Cobwebs are the ones found in nooks and crannies which gather dust. Orb weaving spiders reclaim and reuse the silk they use for their webs, while cobweb weavers leave their webs behind, which is why we find them all over the place. I had never even thought about the differences in spiders and the webs they wove.
One afternoon, I was thinking about how it was that Tysito knew so much that I didn’t know. And I realized that it was because he read so much. Tysito was a member of the Los Angeles Public Library. Whenever I visited him at his graduate student apartment, his room would be full of books. These books had nothing to do with his research, he read them because he was genuinely interested in learning about the subject they treated. I remember he had one book on Aikido, a Japanese martial art which seeks to minimize harm done to opponents. Tysito was doing research on nanomagnetism! Why would he need to read a book on Aikido? Because he wanted to know about it.
Coming face to face with my willful ignorance stirred something up within me. Far from feeling miserable and angry, I became exited! I realized there was so much I could learn, if I only took the time to read.
So I started reading again. And everything changed.
What Happened When I Started Reading Again
The first book I read was “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, published in 1960. I figured there was no way for me to go wrong if I started with a classic. I read it after work, lying in my bed. The complex social and moral issues faced by Atticus Finch, and how he navigated them, got me questioning my own values. I began asking myself how I would respond to the situations faced by Atticus; whether I would be able to face them courageously, like he did.
Throughout my two-and-a-half years in graduate school I tended this nascent flame of inquiry. I read books which had nothing to do with my scientific research. In fact, I soon discovered that the books I was reading interested me way more than the science I was doing!
I read “The Social Animal” by David Brooks, “The Mind Illuminated” by John Yates, “Tribe” by Christopher Junger, “Seven Years In Tibet” by Heinrich Harrer and “The Four-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferris, among others. Each of these books got me contemplating options which I never new existed until I had read them. Until then I thought there was only one way to live life: my own. Reading those books began opening my eyes to the adventure of life.
I began discovering my curiosity. That curiosity which had been smothered (but not completely) by school and my ego-driven choices to make money and become a famous scientist. I realized that the path I was following wasn’t for me. Because I never felt as exited about my scientific research as I did when I read about the power which comes from training the mind (The Mind Illuminated). Or the thrill I felt when I considered it was possible to work less than 40, 50 or 60 hours a week and still make a good living (The Four-Hour Workweek). Or the power our relationships have over the quality of our lives (The Social Animal).
My curiosity was sparked. I began dedicating more time to reading what interested me than doing scientific research. At first, I felt guilty about it, but my curiosity was finally expressing itself after decades of being ignored. My flame was lit. I was curious about how I could live a life doing something I loved while traveling the world. That was the thread I began following.
Eventually I gathered the courage to leave my PhD program. The total lack of interest I had in my work, and what would come after if I continued down the same path, convinced me that I had to make a change.
So I did. And I am way happier and excited now.
Following my curiosity was (one of) the best choice(s) I ever made. It allowed me to focus my energy and time, our two most precious and finite resources, on the things which mattered to me.
And it all started with reading.
So I have a question for you: What are you curious about?
To our wealth and success.