How to dramatically improve your problem-solving abilities

I’ve noticed a lot of chatter in recent times about how prominent, successful and highly regarded individuals, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are avid readers.  Not readers of fiction books, but non-fiction books from a range of fields.  They read to learn and expand their knowledge and understanding of the world.  This ‘chatter’ often implores us all to read more – a laudable idea that many of us never seem to get around to doing.  Our excuse is usually that we don’t have enough time (which is a legitimate factor), however I’m sure we would read more if we felt the benefits were concrete enough to warrant the effort.  The idea of just ‘learning new things’ is just not compelling enough for many people.

Well, I read a lot of books in my chosen fields of interest and not because Bill Gates tells me to! Reading books helps me to get better at solving problems and to help other people solve problems.

How does reading books help me?

Here is my lived experience of reading non-fiction books.  What these books give me, coupled with always evolving experiences, is a vast range of different mental models.  This includes quotes, questions, frameworks, tools and concepts that provide different lenses to help understand situations and problems (a problem is an invitation to find a solution – I got that from reading!).  I don’t usually ‘apply’ these models/tools per se in some cumbersome fashion where I pull them out of my kit bag and then use them.  Rather my very real, day-to-day experience (which I notice more and more) is that as I have conversations with people, or work on an issue, these concepts seemingly magically ‘appear’ in my mind at the moment as they intersect with an issue.  These concepts provide me with a lens (or set of glasses if you will) that I somehow integrate into my thinking in the moment.  Alternatively, I can be reading a book and it ‘magically’ has relevance to a prevailing issue which gives me a new insight.  This happens regularly as I’m very conscious of it now.  It is not unusual for me to draw on 4 different mental models from a handful of books (or articles) that I have read over the last 5 years in a single conversation.  Oftentimes I can have read something in a book and the next day I’ll reference it in a conversation. Time, after time, it has led me or others into brand new insights about an issue.  I am singularly amazed about how often this happens for me.  I believe that my capability and value is significantly enhanced because I read regularly.  It is enhanced because I have so many more mental models from which to draw. 

Bear in mind this is not so much brand new knowledge (there is not that much that is really new under the sun), but rather the way that an author has presented or explained a concept that resonates with my experiences and provides me with a deeper level of understanding.

So, hopefully I’ve provided you with a new way of thinking about the value of reading.  All very well and good, but how do you find the time and work out what to read! 

How do I find the time?

In terms of finding the time, that will be a personal decision about what works for you.  Here is what I do.  I keep an ‘ideas and random thoughts’ notebook – in that notebook I just scribble down any book recommendations (more about that below) that come up.  About every six months I go through that notebook and usually have written 15 – 20 book titles.  I do some basic research on those books (usually reading blurbs and reviews on Book Depository or Amazon) and select about 6 that really appeal to me and purchase on-line (I always get a bit of thrill when they arrive in the mail – perhaps a bit nerdy!). Over a period of six months I usually read about 5 – 6 books.  Every single night as part of my going to bed ritual (having a consistent ritual helps with sleeping as well) I read about 5 – 10 pages only and scribble notes and/or highlight passages – yes, I write on my books (they are not library books)!.  So, with these bite-size chunks I get through about a book every month (which must mean I’m reading about 3000 pages a year).  It works for me.  Others could read on the train or perhaps use audio books.  It will really only happen if you can establish it as a habit that works with your lifestyle.  When I’ve finished a book, I go through the book and type up all the highlighted extracts (usually just two pages, takes about 45 minutes) just to help solidify my learning a little further.

How do I find books to read?

In terms of how to find books to read, it is best if they come from recommendations of others (trusted sources) in the first instance.  I get a lot of recommendations from authors who regularly post about books they recommend or like to read e.g. Adam Grant, Daniel Pink etc.  You can also ask other people you know, whether they have read any great books – books that have changed their life, perhaps!

So, given this is a newsletter about leadership and management, here are a 12 of my favorites (in no particular order)!

  • The Fearless Organisation by Amy C. Edmondson – provides insight and understanding into the concept of psychological safety that Amy has pioneered
  • Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith – practical advice and tools about making behavioural changes stick
  • Walking the Talk by Carolyn Taylor – a wonderful and extremely practical guide to developing organizational culture
  • Quiet by Susan Cain – provides insight into the world of introverts (living in an extroverted world)
  • Dare to lead by Brene Brown – discusses the courage of vulnerability in leadership
  • Flourish by Dr. Martin Seligman – the originator of positive psychology provides a practical model of wellbeing
  • Good boss, bad boss by Robert Sutton – learnings from the best and worst leaders
  • Patterns of Influence by Robert Cialdini – outlines 6 patterns of influence that help you to understand effective marketing, communications and change management practices
  • Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein – a slim, yet rich, book that discusses the art of asking questions instead of telling
  • Insight by Tasha Eurich – discusses the importance and value of self-awareness
  • Drive by Daniel Pink – practical explanation of the science of motivation – you’ll never believe in bonus schemes again!
  • The New Leaders by Daniel Goleman – one of the classic books about emotional intelligence

I guarantee if you read all those books in 2020 it would:

  1. Blow your mind; and
  2. Significantly make you a better leader (and human being).