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Key Leadership Question: what should I be reading or listening to?

Undigested information. Clogged thoughts. Bloated brain. You can see it in the eyes exposed to too many words, images, memes, videos: distant, distressed, and drained. You just went to the all-you-can-eat giga shop known as the World Wide Web or drank mightily of the social media fountain.

Here's the truth. There is too much. And I confess: I don't know what I should be reading anymore.

Where a leader spends her/his time is major. Somethings are of minor importance. Where and how time is spent is major. We could even say that where a leaders spends her/his time is where the organization will end up. If a leader spends time listening to customers and studying the industry, the organization succeeds. If a leader spends time listening to a close inner circle of "Yes People", the organization fails. So this is major.

How do I avoid just being a consumer of information and instead remain an active learner and student?

I needed some answers which began with understanding the problem:

A 2009 University of California at San Diego report suggests the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day. (Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is only 460,000 words long.) This doesn’t mean we read 100,000 words a day — it means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period.

Some of this may be unavoidable and is the "new normal" for those for whom wireless is the new water: a critical utility one cannot live without. But there is discretion. We can exercise choice. I needed help so came up with a simple framework. I share it here in hopes it helps others. Please steal and re-use it as you'd like.

However you get information and ideas, I suggest the following four areas....and the rest you should actively avoid and ignore.

  • Bull's Eye: list your top personal and professional responsibilities and ask yourself what you need to learn to be your best. Reading 1 - 4 books in your professional field per month is a good goal and will build mastery in your field. Add in some reading about parenting teens or toddlers, cultivating a great marriage, managing finances, and whatever relates to your personal responsibilities. I am reading It's Not Just About the Money (a book on fundraising, since that is my primary work focus currently) and Rocking the Roles with my wife as it helps improve my skills and character as a husband. That is what is in my "bull's eye." Those are my main priorities and responsibilities where I want to gain some level of mastery. What is in your bull's eye?

  • Boundary: ecologists tell us about the "edge effect", the abundance of diversity and activity where two habitats come together (think of a forest and a meadow). Similarly, creativity is abundant when we draw outside the lines and actively learn from other professions, industries, fields and disciplines. Reading 1 - 3 books along your boundary per year is appropriate. I recently reread Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass which pushed the bounds of my white male perspective and because diversity is a core value personally and professionally. And I have used Blinkist to listen to summaries of books about blockchain technology whose algorithms are a whole new language for me. What great ideas and insights are just beyond your boundaries? How will you go get them?

  • Basics: beyond the intense activity and demands of the "bull's eye" are the perhaps less obvious subjects. If the topics in the Bull's Eye scream for attention, the Basics may only whisper. But ignore them at your peril! I think of two categories of basic, foundational areas for constant study: spiritual and pragmatic. Spiritual includes the big questions of why you are here, what you are supposed to do, your core values, your moral compass. For me, the primary resource here is the Bible. Pragmatic includes personal effectiveness basics like time/task management, goal-setting, emotional intelligence, communication skills, and physical wellness (what was the last book you read on nutrition or exercise?). I am listening again to Jim Rohn's 7 Strategies for Wealth and Happiness and reading through the Bible again this year. How are you building your skills at the basics of living?

  • Blind Spot: this is the most intriguing, mysterious and elusive of the bunch. It begs the question: what perspectives am I not considering--or even avoiding? Actively seek to read or listen to perspectives unlike your own. I am watching both Fox News, Al Jazeera and intentionally reading articles and watching talks by people of other cultural/racial backgrounds than my own. What are your blind spots? Ironically, our most important blind spots are, by definition, invisible to us. If you are honest with yourself, you can catch them when they appear in moments are great ignorance or anger or embarrassment. Or ask a trusted friend or colleague.

Don't Just Consume...Learn

Finally, I am reminded that the point is to learn, not just to consume. Sure, reading and watching for entertainment and enjoyment is fine and I encourage it. But beyond that, seek to be a gatherer of information and inspiration not just a window shopper. Shopping is draining. Learning is energizing. Definitely check out my post on durable learning which summarizes learning science tips.

For information not just to fatten my head and put me in an overload stupor, I don't just consume information, I learn from it. This demands three things:

  • acquiring

  • articulating

  • applying

I have a separate journal just for this practice of "cognitive fitness", reserved just to process all I am learning. Capture the ideas. Put them into practice. Reflect on them. Make them your own. I fall off the wagon constantly. I find myself just listening and reading without actually learning. But this framework and my journal are at least a wagon I can climb back to.

What is your cognitive metabolism? How much can you consume and use well?

Lastly, we have a metabolism that allows us to digest food and turn it into energy. We can only take in so much food. Likewise, we have a cognitive metabolism for "digesting" information and turning it into knowledge and wisdom. We can only take in so much. You know that feeling of eating too much? Get to know the feeling of consuming too much information. That is your cognitive metabolism telling of you of its limits.


I hope you find this framework helpful. I am curious what works for you. How do you decide what to read and listen to?

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