Focus On Quality Reading, Not Quantity

Sep 16, 2020 5 Min Read
quality reading

For me, quality reading is like having an intimate conversation with a wise mentor who makes the hours dissolve into minutes.

To sharpen your mind, don’t mind the paper cuts

One memorable line from Game of Thrones is when Jon Snow asks Tyrion Lannister why he reads so much. In a world commanded, conquered, and changed by brute strength and violence, it’s an understandable, albeit naive, question.

To Jon’s query, Tyrion replies, “My brother has his sword, King Robert has his war hammer and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”

Pictured: Two longtime readers of

Reading does indeed help to maintain a mental edge, improving critical thinking, perspective-taking, and problem-solving insight. In a 2017 interview with Leaderonomics, American serial entrepreneur and former Oprah Winfrey mentee, Paul C. Brunson, shared that 85% of successful people read two or more self-improvement or educational books per month.

So, that’s at least 24 books per year or 36 at three books per month, and 48 at four. That doesn’t seem like much though, not when we consider the slew of messages, apps, and advertisements that claim to boost our reading speed or help us digest whole books in just 15 minutes.

Even on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, it’s not uncommon for people to share that they’ve read 100 books in a year (8 per month) or more, and I wonder whether this trend of quantity over quality really helps us to learn from the books we read. While it’s certainly possible to read more than 100 books in a year, how much of it actually sticks?

Between quality reading and quantity, pick the first

According to UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield, fast-paced reading (or skim reading) – which has risen in popularity since the advent of digital reading – actually slows down ‘deep reading processes’ such as ‘internalised knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.’

In other words, while we might consume more content in the digital age, we retain less precisely because we try to read more surface-level content at a quicker speed.

By focusing on quality reading, I feel like I can learn and absorb so much more from some of the greatest minds in history.

From biographies of America’s Founding Fathers, we learn that Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were voracious readers, and while they wrote fondly of writers who influenced their perspectives, they boasted about what they learned from their reading rather than the number of works they had read.

While concise, signpost articles and skim-reading can give us helpful guidance and direction at a surface level, taking the time to engage in quality reading (especially physical books) allows us to cultivate those deep processes that serve us well, particularly in leadership, and especially when it comes to qualities such as empathy and the ability to generate insight.

How we do anything is how we do everything, and if our reading habits are designed to glean insights in the fastest time possible, it potentially spills over to how we solve problems as leaders or managers.

Rather than considering an issue thoroughly and looking at it from different perspectives, we might aim to get the gist of what’s going on and suggest quick-fix solutions. And then wonder why such an approach doesn’t lead to sustained progress and long-term success.

As Paul C. Brunson observes, “Books take you deep into the narrative in a way you can’t get from blog posts – and it’s the narrative that gives you context. The context is like glue – there are little bits of concepts that are dropped in. And then there’s context, which binds the concepts in your mind.”

“The challenge for people who read the ‘top 10 ways’ articles is that while they come away with the tips, they don’t have the context. Therefore, they don’t know how to apply those tips in multiple scenarios – the tip comes at face value, but there’s no depth to it.”

Personally, I love to read biographies, especially of my heroes such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Benjamin Franklin. While their lives are pretty well known at this point, taking the time to read their in-depth stories tends to reveal amazing insights that the reader can apply to their own lives. 

Reading about these icons of history highlights the fact that in so many ways, they were like any of us. Often, we can be so blinded by their reputations that we miss out on the grounded example of their humanity.

If you could have a conversation with Abraham Lincoln you wouldn’t ask him for his top 10 tips on life before rushing him out the door.

Whenever I set aside time to read, I always have a notebook beside me. Sometimes, I note any inspiring quotes or insights offered by the writer. Mostly, I write down my own thoughts that arise from reading these incredible life stories as I think about how the obstacles and challenges they faced aren’t so far removed from the struggles we all encounter.

By focusing on quality reading, I feel like I can learn and absorb so much more from some of the greatest minds in history. Think about it: if you could have a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa, you wouldn’t ask them for their top 10 tips on life before rushing them out the door. You’d want to drink in as much of their knowledge and wisdom as possible, so much so that in the end, they’d be eager to get out the door.

If you pick the right kinds of books, every chapter can feel like a masterclass and every page a lesson.

Much is made of the number of books we read in a year, while less attention is paid to what we learn in those 12 months. I’d rather read five or 10 books in one year that truly enrich my mind than zip through 100 and struggle to recall the words I quickly glanced through. Of course, we each have different preferences when it comes to how we read and learn; if reading more enhances your learning and growth, more power to you.

But for me, quality reading is like having an intimate conversation with a wise mentor who makes the hours dissolve into minutes. When I take the time to savour what I read, I’m engaged, enthralled and captivated by what I’m learning. If you pick the right kinds of books, every chapter can feel like a masterclass and every page a lesson. And that’s something I’d never want to rush.

This might interest you: Reading: An Essential Pastime For Success

This article is also available in Chinese.

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Tags: Be A Leader, Youth


Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at

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