If someone asked you to name one trait that truly sets successful people apart, what would pop into your head?
Talent? Resources? A great network base? Innovative ideas? All of these things surely make a difference, but the single constant that permeates the top one per cent of income earners is that they read. A lot.
Research carried out by habit and wealth creation expert Tom Corley shows that, while less successful people read mostly for entertainment, those at the top are avid readers of self-improvement books. In fact, 85% of successful people read two or more self-improvement or educational books per month.
International entrepreneur, lifestyle coach, and American TV show host Paul C. Brunson often cites Corley’s research when expounding the power of reading to those he mentors. As someone who spent a total of six years working with billionaires Oprah Winfrey and Enver Yucel, he knows first-hand the profound effect that the specific habit of reading for improvement can have on a person’s success.
Although he enjoys global recognition as a motivator today, Brunson was a lackadaisical student until he came to read his first book at the age of 18 after accompanying his then girlfriend (now wife) Jill to a bookstore.
The effect was transformative. The power of reading had inspired Brunson, led him into his first job as an investment banker, and drove him through a fascinating journey that took him to where he is today, reaching out to millions of people across the globe who are looking to improve themselves – their relationships and their careers.
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That reading has a powerful effect on our capacity to learn, develop and grow isn’t a new idea. Like exercising and meditation, many of us are aware of the positive results that come with a reading habit. The question, then, is: Why aren’t more people – particularly young students and professionals – reading more books?
“There are two major divides of people who don’t read,” says Brunson.
“There are people who simply don’t put a value on reading. These are people who maybe haven’t graduated from high school or college, and they just don’t see a correlation between reading and success.
“The other group of people are professionals who understand there’s a value to reading but aren’t reading as much as they would like to. The research I’ve seen suggests that the average professional, at least in the United States, reads fewer than five books per year – that’s an incredibly low number.”
He suggests there are three main reasons that prevent professionals from reading as much as they might like to. These are:
1. “I’m too busy to read.”
While professionals are indeed busy, Brunson advises that if we look at the amount of time we watch TV, browse social media and otherwise use up other chunks of our day, we might find that we’re not as busy as we think. We just feel busy.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with watching TV or using social media, but as the top successful people show, to prioritise reading is a habit that offers a huge return on investment that hours spent on TV and social media just can’t match.
2. “Books are challenging.”
If we aren’t familiar with a particular concept (such as investing or negotiation skills), reading can seem like a chore and, let’s face it, it can also feel like a Sisyphean effort trying to get through a 400-page tome on, say, how to develop great communication skills.
At the end of a long day, it’s just all-too-tempting to put our mental energies to other uses, such as watching TV.
3. “Where do I start?”
Brunson suggests that there are currently more than 250,000 titles released by major publishing houses every year and, on top of that, another 750,000 books are offered by self-publishers. That’s over one million new books each year – it’s no wonder that people feel overwhelmed.
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Diving deep into context
With the caveats that exist around reading books, might we be better off turning to the Internet for concise blog posts and all those convenient ‘top 10 ways to achieve success’ articles that pop up everywhere? Surely books are so 20th century?
According to Brunson, if we stick to online reading, we’re selling ourselves short by missing out on the one crucial factor for learning that we find in books: context.
He says, “Books take you so 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.”
Brunson reads over 50 books every year – an impressive feat he achieves by making sure he gets out of bed early every morning to fit in two hours of reading before his two young sons Liam and Kingston wake up. This ensures he gets about 14 hours of reading time each week, enough to get through at least one book.
But the lifestyle mentor is conscious that not everyone will be able to find the time to read as much as they’d like, and so he has developed an initiative called Knowledge Share.
The initiative shares information in a way that condenses self-improvement books with depth and context that allows people to absorb key lessons and apply it directly to their lives, while providing access to world-renowned experts (such as Professor Walter Mischel, creator of ‘The Marshmallow Test’) to whom they can put their questions and clarify points on what they’re learning.
“We’re building a community of people who want to level up in their career,” says Brunson.
“The people I’ve interacted with, from Oprah and Enver to many other successful leaders, all say that in order to level up, you need to have transferable skills.
“So our primary focus is looking at how you can acquire, develop and master valuable, transferable skills so that you can level up. And what Knowledge Share does is give a thorough masterclass on specific skills that can greatly enhance your career.”
When we think about what we read, many of us might have the tendency to pour over the material without giving much thought to what we want to get out of it. As a result, we likely miss out on absorbing as much value as we could if we were able to take our learning to a deeper level.
So how can we absorb as much information as possible from a book that’s been written with the purpose of helping us raise our game?
Brunson advises, “There needs to be some immediate application of what you’re consuming. What I’ve found to be most effective is to write up how I can apply what I’ve learnt to my life. What can I do right now that can make me better?”
Application of knowledge is power
This notion of application is perhaps why the self-help industry is, in part, so successful. How many of us read in order to find that one sentence or single concept that will magically transform our lives? We humans are evolutionarily wired to seek the maximum benefit while expending the minimum energy.
In other words, we’re not naturally geared towards investing in ourselves beyond what makes us feel comfortable. And yet, a great number of us want to reach beyond our comfort and achieve specific goals and ambitions. As the saying goes,
“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done”
This is what sets successful people apart from the rest – they are constantly learning, both within their area of interest and outside it, learning new ideas and concepts along the way.
When we take a look at successful people, none of them began at the height of their stories; they had struggles and doubts along the way just like the rest of us. What set them apart was their determination to nurture a curious mind, learn as much as they could, and make an investment in themselves that would push them all the way from where they started to wherever they wanted to be.
And the crucial point bears repeating – the sole constant that runs through most of the stories of successful people is that they read as many books as possible. They read books that help them to develop and grow their existing skills, as well as master real life skills such as willpower, communication and negotiation skills, and self-discipline.
For Brunson, it’s his current mission to foster a hunger for reading in as many people as possible through his Knowledge Share initiative, which works to immerse people in what he calls “a masterclass course” in skills that are delivered by the top thought leaders in the world.
When asked about why he feels so passionate about sharing with others, he replied:
“Do you have someone who is in the top one per cent in the world to help you get from where you are currently, to where you can reach your goal? I’ll bet 99% of people will say they don’t, and that’s why they need to pick up a book. While there are awful books out there, when you pick up a masterful book, you are literally being taught by a world-class mentor.”
Bringing it all together
There is little doubt that reading for self-improvement makes a profound impact on a person’s capacity to succeed. Business mogul and multi-billionaire Warren Buffet reads between 600–1,000 pages each day; Bill Gates gets through 50 books per year; Winfrey is a voracious reader; and when someone asked how he learnt to build rockets, Elon Musk replied, “I read books.”
The evidence is clear – reading is the habit to develop if you want to increase your chances of leading a highly successful professional life. But how exactly do books affect the reader? What edge does someone with a habit of reading have over those who read few books or none at all?
Brunson is unequivocal in his response,
“If you choose to read – and I’m talking rigorous reading – you are going to climb your ladder faster and higher; you’re going to make more money; you’re going to have more influence; you’re going to create a bigger impact; and, most importantly to me, you’re going to create a powerful legacy.”