Summary of my reading in 2023 – How ditching the Reading Challenge made me a better reader

avnishanand
7 min readDec 30, 2023

--

This is a slightly different way to summarise my book reading for the year. You might not get what you would generally expect in a post like this. but trust me you will find this longish read very useful.

For the last 9 years, I have set a reading challenge for my myself on Goodreads and made a conscious effort throughout the year to reach that challenge. I have also shared my year end reading summaries like best books read in the year etc. I have done Twitter threads where I have posted reviews of all the books read in a particular year. Doing these things has been very useful. More than anything it has helped me read a lot. But this year I have not done any of these.

I don’t even have a reading challenge for this year.

So what has been the result of this change.

I have read a lot less than any of the previous 5–6 years. Almost half the number of books. And it has nothing to do with the changes in my professional life and resulting constraints on time. And yet I am very very happy with my reading this year. Actually, let me correct that. I am very happy with my learning this year. This shift from reading goals to learning goals is essentially the story of the year. This post is about that journey.

Dropping the reading challenge

I don’t exactly remember what caused this but sometime towards the end of 2022, I started to realise the vanity of the reading challenge. I was running behind and I realised that I was trying to chase the Reading Challenge number and making compromises along the way. Trying to rush through books. Picking up books which I thought I could finish faster. Most importantly I wasn’t thinking enough about what I gained from the book. There was a specific trigger also. Something I read which made me realise that reading and other pursuits like that aren’t competitive sports. But these challenges made them one and in pursuit of winning, we lost sight of the reason we read. To learn. To enjoy.

So I dropped the challenge. But I kept thinking about this. I am what most people call a data driven person. I preach the virtues of data and measurement all the time. I was in conflict with my beliefs. But I also knew that metrics don’t tell the whole story. Moreover, I had often observed at work that metrics could be hacked. They improved but the behaviour they were measuring wouldn’t change. I was confused.

Goodhart’s Law

I was looking for answers and then I discovered Goodhart’s law.

Goodhart’s Law is expressed simply as: “When a measure or metric becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, when we set one specific goal, people will tend to optimize for that objective regardless of the consequences.

This confirmed my concerns with the Reading Challenge. I had experienced it myself towards the end of 2022 when I had become a prisoner of metric. I was mindlessly trying to just read more. I was sure that I had done a good thing by dropping the reading challenge. But I was still struggling to answer one question – wasn’t reading a good thing. So why was reading more books a bad thing ?

Achievement Metrics

Then I discovered Catherine Price and her insights about how over usage of devices affects us. She wrote that social media is sticky because it meets our fundamental need for metrics in life. We need metrics because they validate that we have achieved something. Likes and shares and comments do that for us. They are achievement metrics. As a corollary, we often don’t value things that can’t be measured. Or measured easily. Like having fun ( this one needs a separate post ). The reading challenge and the year end post sharing the best books read in the year satisfied the same need for achievement metrics.

What were the immeasurable things about reading that I was missing ?

Accomplishment Vs Mastery

The answer came from an Adam Gopnik podcast. The author spoke about accomplishments and mastery. He argued very convincingly that we chase accomplishments all our life. Grades. Jobs. Salaries. Material pursuits. Achievement metrics. But real joy and satisfaction actually comes from mastery. This corroborates the theory of intrinsic motivation ( drive and motivation comes from mastery, autonomy and purpose ). This was a lightbulb insight for me. I realised now that the reading challenge was an accomplishment measure. Not worth chasing. I needed to answer the mastery question – what was I trying to master through my reading ? That should be my goal. Once I could answer that, I could find a metric to measure it. This would resolve my conundrum. I would have the right goal and metric to measure how reading was helping.

The answer was simple and came easily.

Reading isn’t just about reading

All this while I continued to read. While I wasn’t reading more, I was still spending a lot of time reading. Which meant that I was reading slowly and also spending a lot of time thinking. About the things that I had read. This lazy reading was also ensuring that I was having more Relaxed Attention in my life. This is when the brain is completely at rest, without any distractions and lost in thought. As a result I was doing more Diffusive Thinking. More dots were connecting in my mind. I was having more insights and thoughts and takes on things. And I was itching to write. To think better about all these thoughts that I had.

I was reading better and spending a lot more time thinking and writing. Less books read but I was learning more from the books that I read. The thinking and writing was also helping the learning in a big way. I had done this earlier also. But the intensity and time spent had gone up significantly.

This is how I arrived at the implementation insight that I had shared a few weeks back. Implementation is crucial for learning. Even if you have achieved your reading challenge, there will be zero learning if you did not implement anything that you read.

Reading for mastery

That was my answer. The mastery goal was learning. Learning about things. I am not sharing what these things were. Let’s just say they were important for me personally and professionally in 2023.

Reading more books was not the best way to learn. High quality reading with diffusive thinking and writing was a much better way.

My head was clear now. Reading was good. Reading more in itself wasn’t good. Goal was clear. There was no conflict with data driven. I just had the wrong metric all along. Now i knew what I had to measure. All I needed now was a metric for these things.

The metrics

We need two types of metrics. Input metrics which measure actions. And outcome metrics which measure the goal. As an example, losing weight is an outcome metric. Calories eaten and time spent exercising are input metrics. And we have to remind ourselves of Goodhart’s law constantly. We need metrics which truly measure the behaviour we are aspiring for.

The inputs are easy to measure. Time spent reading. Time spent thinking is also doable. Relaxed attention and diffusive thinking are harder. But there’s a good proxy. No of new thoughts that you have. Writing is easy. You will soon realise that writing output is actually a proxy for all of these things.

Good Writing output – both quality and quantity – explains quality reading, thinking and writing ( obviously )

Outcome is much harder. Learning is very hard esoteric concept. In India we are used to equate learning either with degrees and grades or with job and role. For me, the best way to measure progress on learning is through honest self assessment. Are you getting better at the things that you wanted to learn ? Have you managed to successfully implement something ? Are you thinking about things differently ? Feedback from people is also useful. Writing output is also a good proxy for learning. You need not write in public. You don’t have to share your writing with anyone. But writing is very important.

Earlier I was overachieving on books read and not doing enough of the other things required to learn. This year I balanced my time and energy across the board and became a better learner. I haven’t achieved a lot of mastery yet but I am closer to it than what I was earlier.

The Art of Reading

I write an article called “ The Art of Reading” a few years back. I have now realised that that article is incomplete. I will write and share. “ The Art of Reading 2.0” very soon. Explain some of the things I have covered here in more detail.

I am. still recommending books and sharing what I have read and learnt.

Wish all of you lots of learning through reading, thinking and learning in 2024.

--

--