General James Mattis on the Importance of Reading

I have been working hard at increasing the depth and breadth (and speed!) of my reading.  To be honest, I’ve often felt guilty for taking time in my day to read.  I always thought, “How many of my church members get the luxury of sitting down with a book in the middle of their day to read?”  I have come to realize how short-sighted and, frankly, absurd that notion is.

My whole job is to make sure that I’m learning the answers to a thousand different questions.  I have to work to understand deep, theological concepts so that I can adequately and simply communicate them to people who are struggling, hurting or confused over something that has happened in life.  For me to understand the answers, I have to continually be digging and studying which, of course, means reading.

In some way or another, you have to continue developing, too.  Whether it’s in your job, your family, or your soul, you are charged to keep growing.  We are constantly learning.  The question is whether we’re learning the hard way or doing the hard work to learn the easy way, which rarely happens without reading.

I recently came across one of the absolute best articles I’ve ever read on the subject of “professional reading” which could also apply to the area of general “developmental reading.”  It’s about the reading habits of General James Mattis who was recently tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next Secretary of Defense.  In the Business Insider article, General Mattis talks of the primary reason that carving out time for extensive reading time is so important:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

What about you?  Do you make reading a priority?  I encourage you to expand your horizons, develop a wide-range of interests (history, biography, theology, etc.), and begin carving out time whenever you can to invest in personal growth through reading.  I highly recommend you read the entire article here and check out the following extra posts for some tips and guidelines.

Additional articles on the subject:

Albert Mohler on “The Reading of Books”

My article on 7 Tips for Reading Better, Faster and Smarter

7 Tips for Reading Better, Faster and Smarter

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I have to read a lot for my job.  As a pastor, my responsibility is not to know everything, but to know as much as I can and then know where to find what I don’t know (which is plenty!).  That’s a big responsibility when you are regularly asked questions on every minutia of theology or how to handle a particular life situation or are wondering what the Bible says about _______________.

With that in mind, I’ve thinking about how I can improve my ability to absorb large amounts of information by increasing the number of books I’m able to read over the course of a year. I’ve read several good articles on the subject, asked and received some good advice, and also tried some experimentation myself.  I decided I would share some of what I’ve found to work for me here on my blog in hopes that you, too, can grow in your breadth and depth of knowledge through reading, which is of more importance than we probably give it.  

Relying on someone else to do all the learning for you doesn’t cut it.  Just listening to sermons or lectures isn’t enough.  You need to become effective in digging for yourself.  I want to encourage as many people as possible to actively begin learning how to find good resources, effectively move through them, and glean as much knowledge as they can. 

If you’ve never felt confident as a student or even as a reader, it can seem overwhelming.  When I started the process, some basic questions surfaced:  How do I do it?  Where do I find the time in my busy schedule to read or study?  Is there a way to increase my reading ability and speed because I seem to get bogged down and often don’t even make it to the end of a book (I lose interest halfway through and start another book instead)?  All of these are problems I have faced and have worked hard to overcome.  If you’re in the same boat, see if any of these 7 suggestions might help you become more proficient in accomplishing your reading goals:

1.  Pick good books.  All books are not equal and with millions to choose from, you are bound to pick some losers just because the cover was pretty or the subject interested you.  Before you ever purchase a book or even commit to reading it, check out reviews.  Go to Amazon, look up the book, read an excerpt, check out the reviews and see what other readers are saying.  There are always gong to be at least a couple of negative reviews, but if the majority really like it, you have a good chance of picking a winner.  Also, rely on people you trust who read a lot of books to provide you with suggestions.  If you’re interested in a particular subject, put it out on Facebook or Twitter or reading apps like Goodreads and see if anyone has good suggestions.  You’ll probably be surprised with how many great possibilities you get.

2.  Don’t waste your time on bad books.  If you pick a book that promised more than it could deliver, stop reading it.  If you don’t, you’ll become discouraged and begin to hate the process of reading which will only defeat the purpose.  In some books, you might need to skim through and pick out some good stuff and discard the rest.  Even some really bad books have a couple of really good chapters.  Read only those chapters and move on.  On that note, sometimes we feel obligated to read a book because we paid good money for it.  I would encourage you to only buy books that you are relatively certain are worth it.  In cases where you aren’t sure, go to a library or borrow from a friend.  If you have Amazon Prime, you already have access to a huge lending library as a part of your membership.  On top of that, there is a huge number of free books through websites like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  If you do buy some losers, take them to a used book store and see if you can get credit for different books or sell them online.

3.  Limit distractions.  Once I have a book I really want to read, I often find that I can’t find the time to actually read it.  One of my problems is that I do a lot of my reading using ebooks, which is very convenient but can also make uninterrupted reading virtually impossible.  Because I have an iPad and an iPhone, I did what most people do and downloaded the Kindle app, not realizing that I was making a huge mistake. 

The problem I encountered with reading on a smart device is that every few minutes I would be interrupted by a “ding!” for an email alert and a “ding!” for a text message.  I got dinged for Facebook and dinged for Twitter.  Instagram would ding me and so would every other app on my phone.  Even if I chose not to look at them immediately, the distractions became maddening.  How could I avoid this?  It wasn’t until I read a suggestion in an article about ebooks by Tim Challies that I finally discovered the answer.  He recommended not reading ebooks on the same device you use for all your other interactions.  Instead, purchase an actual Kindle (or some other ebook reading device) that doesn’t come with notifications.  That was genius!  So, I found a used 6” Kindle for about $30 on Amazon and it’s made all the difference.  When it’s time to read, I put my phone and iPad in another room and dedicate whatever time I have to uninterrupted reading.  It’s great and one of the best purchases I’ve made.

This leads to the other aspect of limiting distractions:  chill out on the social media.  One of the greatest time-thieves in my life has been social media.  I wrote about it here, so I won’t rehash that post now, but since cutting out social media all-together, I have noticed a marked increase in available time for more important things.  That’s not to say I will never go back to social media as I think it can be very helpful and beneficial, but I don’t plan to re-introduce it to the level I once did. 

If you want to increase your time reading or studying, designate certain times during the day that you can check in on social media, but turn off notifications and let those special times be during your breaks.  If not, your productive times will only be during your breaks from social media.

Of course, what can be said for social media can certainly be said for television.  There are particular shows I like to watch.  I’m going to watch them and not feel guilty about it, so long as that isn’t the majority of my time.  That’s not to say I don’t have times of crashing on the sofa while the tv is on, but if most of my free time is sitting in front of the tv, I’ve got a problem.  So, if that’s you, intentionally turn off the tv and pick up a book.  If you don’t feel like getting into anything deep, grab a good fiction book and “veg-out” in that, instead.

4.  Always have a book.  I learned this tip from Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most (if not the most) voracious readers I’ve ever known.  Dr. Mohler suggests always having a book on hand while waiting in line at the bank or supermarket, while waiting in the doctors office or even when sitting at red lights!  With my handy Kindle, that’s an easy thing to do, but you can also use these suggestions with paper books.  The point is, seize the moments you have that, strung together, are pretty large blocks of time that are otherwise wasted.

5.  Work on increasing your reading speed.  This has always been my Achilles Heel!  I’ve always been a good reader, but not a very fast one, so it would take me for.e.ver to read a single book.  Frustrating!  So, last year, I made it my goal to increase my reading speeds while not sacrificing comprehension.  I set out to find anything that could help me and was surprised at the number of speed-reading apps available.  I settled on one that has helped me tremendously called ReadQuick.  There is a free version, but for the price of a kindle book (about $9.00), you can get the full version. 

That app has helped train me to disconnect the automatic process of sounding out every word I see in my head and letting my mind rapidly pick up on the words as my eyes are quickly moving through the text.  I’ve been pretty amazed at how much speed with comprehension I’ve been able to attain over the few months I’ve been using it.  That’s only one among many options that you can choose from, but I recommend trying one of them.

6. Go for variety.  Find material that interests you.  Balance your reading between subjects that you have questions about and genres you’ve never explored before.  I try to focus on different genres on different days of the week.  For instance, on Mondays, I will generally read something related to Apologetics/Worldviews.  Tuesdays, I’ll read a book and/or articles related to leadership.  Wednesdays are for Theology and Thursdays are biography.  Friday, which is my day off, I’ll usually read some fiction and then weekends are whatever scratches my itch.  Now, that said, I’m not rigid with this.  There are some days I really don’t feel like reading from the genre I planned and so I’ll read something else, but I still want to try and maintain balance so that I grow in my breadth of knowledge as well as my depth.

7.  Set goals.  Using these suggestions, determine a goal for how much you want to read.  Think about how many books you were able to read during the last year and see if you can increase that in the current year by at least a couple of books.  Even one book more than you read last year is an improvement!  Celebrate that and build momentum!  If you’ve never finished even one large book (and don’t be too embarrassed…you’d be surprised at the number of people in that category), then set your goal for reading one book of, say, at least 200 pages this year.  You pick the number of pages, but start somewhere and determine to accomplish that goal.  Then you’ll have something to improve on next year.

The bottom line is that you’ll never grow if you aren’t intentionally trying.  The best way to grow is to read.  Start small and work your way up, but at least start! 

Happy reading.

Have additional tips that have worked for you?  Please let me know…I’m always open to trying something new!

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