Commit To Professional Reading

Commit to Professional Reading by Dylan WilbanksI used to be a voracious reader. In third grade, I read 50 books for the school reading contest… only to lose the contest because they insisted I didn’t read half the books because they were above my grade level. The early 1980s were the bad old days, kids.

After I left college, I read less and less. Now, mind you, I didn’t really stop reading. The rise of the Web meant I was reading pretty much every day. But I read lots of short articles and pieces while my book reading declined.

In 2012, I read zero books. Work was sucking me dry, so my reading was entirely articles on the web… most of which I’d scan for interesting pieces of information, but then promptly forget about.

Last year, I walked away from my old job and took some time off to rethink my career. In that downtime I started reading books again. By the end of 2014, I had read 17. That doesn’t seem like a ton… until you realize it was a 6 month period, and it was more than I’ve read since college.

All that reading reminded me of what I’d missed. I’d spent so much time doing the work that I hadn’t had time to really think about the work, or how to make it better… or how to be better at what I did.

My little piece of advice for this august group is simple: Commit to professional reading. You need new ideas to inspire, to shape, and challenge who you are and where you are going. (Tweet this!) Being heads down in the day-to-day doesn’t give you the opportunity to rise above the situation and ask how you can do it better—or if you even should be doing it at all.

Keep your goals modest

My commitment for 2015 is 20 books. That’s all. If I read 20 (well) before the end of the year, I’ll set a new goal. But 20 is something I think I can do in a calendar year.

Don’t set huge goals for yourself if you can’t break them down into smaller checkpoints. Huge goals are easy to walk away from when you feel like you’ve failed.

Set aside the time

Put time on your calendar every day to read, whether that’s during a bus or train commute, in the wind-down after work, or even on the treadmill at the gym. It is really easy to stop reading in the name of “being busy.” Get in the habit of reading by making it a scheduled event.

Pick the right format for you

I am a 100% e-book person (with some exceptions, namely cookbooks and design books). You may love the feel of paper and the smell of glue. That’s fine. Choose the form factor that works for you.

Read wide

It’s good to read books centered around your vocation and working. But to be well-rounded, you have to read beyond your field, beyond your comfort zone. Explore different fields, different ideas. The exploration will give you ideas you can carry across to your work. (You’d be amazed what the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual can teach you about handling office politics.)

Read fiction as well as non-fiction. Read new books and classics. Read literary magazines, graphic novels, and poetry. The more omnivorous you are with your reading, the better your ideas and solutions are.

But there’s one kind of book you should be careful of.

Don’t read (most) business books

They’re the Lay’s “Do Us A Flavor” potato chips of books—the latest, coolest taste that will get replaced by the latest, coolest taste the next year, but in the end, you won’t remember what they tasted like in 5 years.

Business books are written for busy managers and executives. They take one idea, throw in fifty anecdotes that (somewhat) prove the idea, and mash them into a 120 page book. From this, the author can go on speaking tours touting the one idea, write ten sequels around the idea, and run with the idea until it’s used up or replaced with the newest rehash of the same idea.

This is not to say there aren’t great business books out there—Peter Drucker’s works on management come to mind—but you would be better off avoiding most of what you see on the shelves. Read the classics, or get recommendations from others.

If it’s terrible, stop reading it

It is OK to put a book down that’s not appealing. You’re an adult now; you are allowed to not love the same things everyone else. In fact, it’s encouraged.

Blog posts and websites are good, but…

…the best reading and thinking comes in a low distraction environment. And I say this knowing full well you’re staring at a screen right now. Let me ask you: Since you started this article, how many things on your screen (or screens—admit it, you looked at your phone at least once) have flashed, blinked, blooped, or otherwise distracted your attention? How many browser tabs you have open?

You need to shut out the distractions and focus. If you’re going to get better, you have to treat reading for your career seriously. (Tweet this!)

Treat your reading time the way high-end restaurants treat food—as singular events to be enjoyed individually, rather than the way cafeterias do—with many, many things to distract you.

Now that you’ve read it, write about it.

Writing helps you understand what you’ve read — and remember it. It can be as much as carrying around a reading journal or as little as a blurb on LibraryThing or Goodreads.

Put ideas into action

Did a book give you a solution for a problem at work? Or an idea for a new initiative? Then try it. If it fails, that’s fine. (One of the things they don’t tell you about adulthood is that you’re expected to fail… and fail a lot.) If it works, well, write about it. Pass the knowledge along.

To get better at your job —and at being a person—you need to feed yourself with new ideas and challenge existing ones. (Tweet this!) Reading is one of the best ways to do this. Don’t neglect reading in the name of “being too busy.” Make the time, read well, and apply it.

About The Author

Dylan Wilbanks PhotoDylan Wilbanks is a Seattle-based web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience lead for EnergySavvy. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he’s really sorry about it.

With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it.

He tweets at @dylanw and writes on Medium and The Pastry Box Project. Learn more at


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