Use Harvard’s “Critical Reading Strategy” to super-charge your self-improvement research

Yesterday, l finished reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Kiyosaki, 2000) and I felt inspired. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t understand a lot of what I had read, but I knew that my views on personal finance had shifted been considerably.

Hungry to expand my knowledge in this area, I started to research the Kiyosaki’s ideas and background. Instead of further inspiration, however, what I found were several withering reviews that explained that Kiyosaki was essentially a fraud, who had serious problems with his (sometimes borderline illegal) methodologies.

With 26 million copies sold, I am sure that I am not the only one who reacted to the book positively. I know very little about personal finance, and Rich Dad, Poor Dad provides a simple, engaging set of rules to follow in order to increase wealth. I wonder what fraction of the people who have read his book discovered the truth behind it, though. I wonder what fraction of people made disastrous decisions with their money as a result.

The importance of reading critically

The self-improvement industry is filled with books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Books that appeal to the large audience of people who want simple answers and quick results. Unfortunately, these books very rarely provide any kind of value to the genuine self-improver.

There are plenty of books out there which provide honest, useful, inspiring information. Unless you want to improve yourself by trial and error, which is a very painful path to self-improvement, you need to discover and read these books. But how can you do this? It’s not as simple as finding a reading list on the internet (although that can be a good start). Everyone is different, and everyone needs to change in different ways. The books you need to read are not the same as the books I need to read.

One solution is to read critically.

Critical reading is a skill that must be learned. Very few people do it naturally. Luckily, Harvard has a “Critical Reading Strategy” that breaks down the method into 6 easy steps, which we can adapt for our self-improvement research needs.

Step Zero: Discover the book

This isn’t part of the official strategy, but of course the preliminary step to reading something is to discover it. Ask your friends for recommendations, research the subject you want to learn on the internet, read blogs, listen to podcasts, and lurk on discussion boards. Inevitably someone will mention a book that appeals to you.

Step One: Preview

Before you open the book, before you even buy the book, you need to learn more about the book. Identify your expectations about the “scope and aim” of the book. For example, does your self-help book on personal finance focus on specific techniques to invest your money, or does it just explain how to have a good general attitude towards finance. Is the book for people who have $1000 in the bank or $100,000? Knowing what you are about to learn not only improves your ability to learn it, it also makes sure that you don’t waste time acquiring information that isn’t immediately useful to you.

Don’t forget to research the author at the same time as the book. Are they living a lifestyle you admire? How will their reputation and credentials affect your reading of the text?

Step two: Annotate

As you read the book, get into the habit of recording your immediate reactions in the margins of the page. Throw away your highlighter; those brightly coloured lines provide you with no real extra information, and can get in the way of your comprehension of a text. Instead, use a personal system of symbols to draw your attention back to areas of the book that caught your attention. A “*” symbol could identify a key idea, and a “!” could mean an idea which is surprising, absurd, or bizarre.

Write down short notes about things that occur to you or seem important, and continuously ask yourself questions: “What does this mean?”, “Why is the author writing this?”, “What are the consequences for me?”.

Step three: Outline, Summarise, Analyse

Outlining means figuring out the skeleton of the argument. What is the thesis, the evidence, the main points, the conclusion. Thinking about a text this way can help you find the assumptions, flaws, and jumps of logic that are often present in the most popular self-improvement books. You can do this mentally, in the margins with your annotations, or by writing it out separately.

Summarising is similar to outlining, except you state the ideas of the text in your own words. Often you do this naturally by trying to explain the concepts you’ve just read to somebody else. By trying to explain the text yourself, you become more aware of the parts of it you haven’t understood, or don’t make sense.

Analysing means evaluating the text, not just restating it. Test the logic, credibility, and argument of the text. Does the author have sound ideas that are well communicated? What are the facts and opinions of the text? What is the strongest and weakest evidence that the author provides?

Step four: Look for patterns

Try to notice the words, phrases, and images that recur throughout the text, or whether the author has a consistent way of characterising people, events, or issues. The choices of the author can reveal both what they consider important (and what they expect you to understand from the text), as well as any underlying agendas they might have. An author who repeatedly makes reference to his other products, for example, may be writing in order to sell to his readers.

Are there any patterns that you expected to be in the text that are absent? Does the author fail to credit others for his ideas, for example? Does he rely on providing real-world examples instead of generally-applicable principles, or vice versa?

Step five: Contextualise

Once you’ve finished reading and analysing the text, it’s time to put it into perspective. Consider it’s historical, intellectual, and cultural circumstances. You’ll need to view a book from 1950 with a different perspective than one from 2010, for example. What parts of the book are timeless, outdated, untested, disproved? You should have a good knowledge of the background of the text from when you previewed it in step one, and these factors should also influence your final opinion on the text.

Step six: Compare and contrast

How is your book related to the other books you’ve read. Does it expand old ideas, or attempt to communicate new ones? Which texts does it agree with, and with which does it disagree? Even if it uses the same words as other books, does it use the same definitions for those words? Does it provide a mainstream or alternative way of thinking?

***

Reading critically can seem like a lot of work at first, but it’s really only a magnification of what you already do when you read. If you can incorporate this technique into your self-improvement research, you’ll supercharge your learning efficiency – both by absorbing more from each text, and by focusing your time on texts that you are certain will provide useful ideas.

You can use habit-stacking to get started with critical reading by saying “Before I read the first page of a new book, I will research its background and author.”

Good luck!

 

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