Americans are reading fewer books than they have in the past. That's not great news, of course, but it does give you an easy way to stand out and get ahead by simply reading a few more books than average.
According to the latest Gallup report on the state of reading, Americans read an average of 12 books a year, a smaller number than Gallup has recorded in any survey going back to 1990.
While reading books "appears to be in decline," according to Gallup, there doesn't seem be a decline in reading activity among a subgroup of super-achievers--entrepreneurs and business leaders, many of whom read anywhere from 11 to 50 books a year.
That means if you simply read one-and-a-half books every month, you'll be far ahead of your peers and join a super elite club of top leaders.
Avid readers who are leaders usually have a system for reading: They're selective and active.
Be a selective reader
Randomly stumbling upon books is a fun pastime, but if you're busy starting a company or leading a team, there's only so much extra time you have in a day. That's why you need to be selective about the books you read.
The podcaster Tim Ferriss asked billionaire David Rubenstein how he chooses the 100 books he reads every year. Rubenstein said he's selective. For example, he spends most of his reading time in the nonfiction categories that relate to his work and interests: business, philanthropy, politics, and history. (Rubenstein donates millions of dollars to preserving historical documents and buildings.)
Ask people in your field what they read. Listen to podcasts or read blogs by leaders you admire. Look for books that complement your career or passion. For example, when I give interviews or deliver presentations on public speaking and communication skills, I don't recommend "public-speaking" books. One of my favorite books to recommend is Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In it, you can learn about Abraham Lincoln's storytelling skills or Franklin Roosevelt's amazing ability to simplify complex arguments.
A history book is the best "communication" book I've ever read.
Be an active reader
If you're going to spend precious time reading a book that will make you a better person, then you owe it to yourself and others to incorporate what you learn.
Be an active reader: Take notes, highlight ideas, decide which concepts you're going to take on a test drive. You'll likely throw out 90 percent of what you learn, but the remaining 10 percent might catapult your career.
I read anywhere from 50 to 75 books a year. I have a system for getting the most out of each one. First, I read them with a yellow highlighter in hand. Second, I review the highlights and write notes in a digital file. Finally, if I have the opportunity, I will contact the author to discuss the book or read additional material by the same person.
Most important, especially if you're running a team, be an active reader by sharing the book with others. Together, you can use the ideas you've learned to elevate the group's success.
For more than 15 years, I've been speaking to companies around the world, reaching audiences on six of seven continents. Nearly every leader who invites me to address their team reads far more books than the people they manage do. But they don't just read--they share.
I recall speaking at a big tech company in Los Angeles and finding out that author Dan Pink had been there a few weeks earlier. I learned that the company's founder sends out a bi-weekly email with a short explanation of how a book applies to the company. He then invites the author to speak at the company and all employees and major customers are invited.
It's difficult to stand out from the crowd. Take every opportunity to do so. Read a few more books than average and you'll set yourself apart.