Wisdom//

What I Learned From Reading 52 Books In a Year

It improved my leadership skills, and made small talk much more interesting.

Anfisa Kameneva / EyeEm/ Getty Images
Anfisa Kameneva / EyeEm/ Getty Images

A book I’d seen years ago sparked me overhauling my whole reading strategy.

This whole thing started a dozen years ago in college when my roommate Sarah came home reading Bowling Alone for a political science class she was taking. It seemed so glamorously collegiate to be reading a thick 500+ page book that tracks “the collapse and revival of American community” at the turn of the century. I never got assigned to read Bowling Alone for a college class, but I also never forgot the book. It became a mythical “when I have time I will read that book” on my book bucket list. (It also became the only book on my book bucket list). But in July of this year, for no real reason except that I saw it in yet another bookstore and realized I’d been wanting to read it since before the iPhone came out, I decided this was the year to read it.

And like the mouse who was given a cookie, deciding to read that book led me to making a list of all the books I’d read by that point in the year for no real reason except now that I had purchased a book that was too heavy to easily toss into my backpack made me a “serious reader.” And serious readers track their books, right? So as of the July 4th weekend of this year, I had read 18 books in six months, which seemed like a lot to me at the time. It was a little under a book every two weeks and I wasn’t even really trying to read more, aside from a vague New Year’s Resolution of “Less Buzzfeed, More Books.” So then I decided to see if I could read 52 books, averaging about one a week. And even though I was starting behind the one-book-a week-pace that most people who do #52books52weeks hit, it seemed like a doable goal so I just decided to go for it.

Between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018, I finished 52 books. I’ve always been a reader, but having a set goal has really been transformative for me both personally and professionally. Along with every other entrepreneur who has read High Performance Habits, I make annual and quarterly and weekly goals. I start 95% of my weekdays by writing down my goal for THAT day. But most of my goals are related to my company. I do goal-set for my relationships and parenting (broadly speaking, I want to be an easygoing wife and a fun mom) but in the day-to-day I’m mostly thinking: let’s get X podcasters using this feature, how many Y newsletter subscribers have we gained this week, what % is this round closed, etc. But so much of being an entrepreneur is a combination of balancing what’s within your control and knowing that many things are totally out of your control. It helped me enormously mentally while running a business that has a ton of moving parts to have a goal I was 100% in control of.

Here’s what helped me become the kind of reader who reads Bowling Alone and then 51 other books within a single year. The kind of reader I’ve always wanted to be!

Let Small Talk Becomes Book Research. Doing 52 books in a year gave me an easy small talk question: “I’m trying to read more. What good books have you read lately?” Anytime someone mentioned a book I wrote it down. The problem of having “nothing to read” is that you don’t actually have nothing to read, it’s that you’ve forgotten what you wanted to read in the first place. Constant recording of books people recommended at parties, at work events, on Instagram helped with this problem.

The  biggest genre of books I read was concentrated in the entrepreneurship / leadership / productivity section – books like The Hard Thing About Hard ThingsBusiness BoutiqueTractionSetting the TableBored and BrilliantThe DipMastering the VC GameVenture DealsHer Big IdeaRadical CandorPick ThreeOff the ClockBring Your Human to Work, and Purposeful. This deep dive across the main lanes of business was transformational to me as a leader who is running a investor-backed company for the first time.

But I also read a ton of books people recommended to me that got me out of the all-business-all-the-time-everyone-should-wake-up-at-5am-daily-genre. I read some great first-person memoirs (Hillbilly ElegyWho Thought This Was A Good IdeaImperfect CourageNo One Tells You This), books on the human condition (More Beautiful than BeforeCome Matter HereAlmost Everything) and many books that were just really fun to read (Charlotte Walsh Likes to WinI’ll Be There For YouI’m Judging You, The Girlstrilogy).

No Over-Congratulating Yourself On Your Completed Books. I tracked each book in my phone and didn’t let myself look at the completed book list unless I was adding a new one to it. This made it harder to obsess over the number of books I had read, and gave me a little thrill (ha! strange but true) whenever I got to open the list to add a new one.

…But Cheer Emojis Are Surprisingly Moviating. I’m not a big sharer on social media until a goal is reached, but I did tell my husband/parents/close friends I was trying to hit 52 books this year. Especially towards the end of the year, when I was getting close to 52, it was motivating to group-text my besties and say “49 is done! So close to 52 I can taste it!” and see the cheer emojis come in.

Keep Reading Fun. I buy books for my employees; I want my children to see me reading; I married someone who is a reader too. Reading is a value I hold dear because at its core I think reading is fun, and I tried not to let setting a goal get in the way of seeing something as fun. I purposely wasn’t diligent about finishing a book if I didn’t like it; if I started it and got 30 or 40 pages into it and just wasn’t into it, I quit. I started probably about 10 books that I just didn’t finish, and I was okay with that.

No Page Metrics KPIs. I also didn’t let myself get obsessed with page count. If a book was interesting to me, I read it, even if it was short (How to PackParty Girl’s First Date, an unauthorized e-book biography of the founder of WordPress). I also let myself re-read books I’d read in previous years and still “count” them, although I actually ended up doing that with only two books, Drop the Ball and The Fringe Hours. I also tried not to obsess about books that “seemed” long. The two longest books I read were my two last books of the year – Becoming(#51 on my list and 426 pages) and Bowling Alone (#52 on my list and 536 pages including the Appendix). Yes, I finally finished the book that started it all and while I’m glad I read it, it was slow going for a while (a chapter here, a chapter there, a month long stretch when I lost it in a pocket of a suitcase, etc.)  Removing these outliers, I would say the average book I read was a standard 225-250 pages. A huge part of me wants to go through each book one-by-one, record their page count, and average it, but another 2018 goal of mine is stop focus on metrics that don’t matter, so I’m letting that one go.

Pass It Along. In an ongoing effort to not clutter my house but also my deep desire to read print not e-books (by the end of the day, I’m so sick of screens), I tried to pass physical copies of books along as quickly as possible. When I finished a book, if I knew someone that would like it, I would drop it in the mail for them. I gave away books I had finished reading on a first-come-first-serve basis in my newsletter, mailing them off to the first person that requested them. And I tried to not only pass along books to other readers, but also to pass along thanks to the authors. Since I’ve written a book myself and I know the slog of trying to get Amazon reviews for it, any book I finished that I liked I gave a review to on Amazon.  

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m thinking ahead to what I want my reading goal to be for 2019. I didn’t start officially tracking my books until halfway through this year, at which point I had read 18 books. That means since July, I’ve read 34 books. If I have the same dedication in 2019 as I did for the back half of 2018, I should be able to do 68 books in the year (34 x 2). But I already know I can probably keep up that kind of pace needed to be on track for 68 books, so…I want to stretch a little. I’m tacking on an extra 10 so it’s just a little bit more satisfying to reach 2019’s goal.

But…78 books in 2019 isn’t quite as catchy or as fun to say as seventy-nine-books-in-two-oh-one-nine, so I’m off to start #79in2019.

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