02: The Secret To Becoming A Learning Machine
David Cancel: Hey, I'm David Cancel, and today on seeking wisdom, we're going to talk about a simple framework for how you can become a learning machine, outsmart those Ivy league MBAs, and accelerate your learning without having to set foot in a classroom ever again.
Interviewer: All right, so we live in this world where everybody wants to be smarter and more productive, but whether you want to be a better cook, maybe you want to be a better marketer, maybe you want to be a better CEO, everybody has this urge to be smarter, but you've noticed this thing all the time where from the average Joe, to the Ivy league MBA, people just stop learning after they get out of school. You've noticed this over and over, once you leave school, learning is done.
David Cancel: This is the thing that I noticed that happens the most. And I think this is the thing that you can use as your secret weapon to beat everyone around you. And that is to continue to learn.
Interviewer: And people like Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, they get credit for being these really smart guys as they should, but a lot of people don't know, the thing that they don't get credit for, is that behind the scenes, they're always learning.
David Cancel: I think that's the hidden secret for all those guys, whether it's Gates, or Buffett, or Musk, or any of the famous people that you think of as inspiration, what their secret is is that those guys are reading more than anyone else.
Interviewer: And the whole thing is they just become these learning machines, just learning from other people. And you've said this, at least to me, bunch of times, people always say," This is your fifth company, what's your hack, what's your shortcut?" And you always say that your only shortcut is just learning.
David Cancel: That's it. It's the one thing that pisses me off and gets me frustrated, is when people are always asking for hacks and tricks and shortcuts, and I get it, we all want to get there faster, but the only shortcut that I've ever found is continuous learning. And there's lots of ways to do that, whether it's through mentors, whether it's through friends, whether it's through experiences, but I found the most efficient and the highest ROI comes when you lean on books as the way to learn.
Interviewer: So this is funny, because everybody wants this, we live in this world of hacks, and you're sitting here in 2016 telling people that they need to read more books.
David Cancel: Read more books. Forget about reading about posts about hacks, about hacks. Meta posts. Posts about hacks, about other hacks. The real hack is just read books and learn.
Interviewer: The secret sauce is, these guys have all become these learning machines, and the reason they become learning machines is because they put in the work, they do the reading, but the focus of this today is give some people advice for reading more. Somebody's going say," Listen to David's podcast, he told me to read more. I'm busy. I don't know time."
David Cancel: Everyone's busy. I'm busy, everyone's busy, I get it. I think you need to prioritize reading, and I have a little system that I use personally to get more reading done.
Interviewer: All right. So I want to start with, maybe when you actually read. So we'll talk about the ways you read after, but when do you make time? You're a CEO, you have a wife, you have kids, you work long hours, you got to put in the work at home and the office. There's minimal time for you to... When do you actually get your reading done? Do you have a inaudible that you-
David Cancel: Most of my reading happens early in the morning. So I get up at around 5: 00 AM each day, and I do a couple of things, but the one of the most important things that I do before starting my day, before touching computer, or for touching my phone, and before even my kids and wife wake up is to sit down and read.
Interviewer: Why can't you touch a device? If you touch the phone and touch the computer, then you're gone?
David Cancel: Exactly. No, the second I touch a computer or a phone, then my mind is racing elsewhere. And part of my morning ritual or practice is to do yoga, and to really be intentional about my time. And part of those intentions are to sit down and read.
Interviewer: All right. So for you, it works in the morning, but maybe the bigger takeaway for most people is, it doesn't have to be in the morning, is it just, you have this dedicated time, you know," This is my time"?
David Cancel: Yes. Just based on my schedule, because I'm always running around, and kids, and startup, and this and that. The most consistent time I can find is early in the morning, I'd say for other people that I talk to for them, it's riding the T, riding the train, for others it's doing audio books in cars, for others it's late night before bed reading. Everyone's got something that works for them. What's worked for me is early morning.
Interviewer: But the other thing is that, reading doesn't have to be this hour, this marathon thing, right? It can be 15 to 30 minutes. It's just-
David Cancel: Most mornings I'm reading, 15, 20 minutes is all I need to read. Sometimes I go longer than that. But if I read 15 minutes, I'm happy.
Interviewer: All right. So you're sitting at home. Let's talk about how you actually read. Is this a physical book? Is it a Kindle? Are you reading on your phone? Are you reading articles in pocket? What's the system?
David Cancel: It's all of those things. I do read stuff online. And do use pocket, which I'll talk about it-
Interviewer: We'll get back to that-
David Cancel: ...but I don't count that as reading. So how do I read books? So I have this system where, depending on the type of book, will tell me the medium that I read that book in. And so for the very best books, and for the books that have stood the test of time, all the classics that we hear about, and the books that I feel like I need to come back to maybe reread a couple of times, or might be difficult, and I need to sit down and I spend a lot of time highlighting books with an actual highlighter, old school, I'll obviously get a physical book. And for those books that I think are more, one- time reads more disposable, shorter, I'll get them in Kindle, and I do highlight there. And then finally, for the super disposable entertainment type books, I use audio books.
Interviewer: So your first one is almost like," These are trophies." A, you want to have the books after, but B you just want to be able to touch and feel them and have them. So you know right away when you go to buy a book," Okay, I just found this awesome book, I'm going to buy it on Amazon."" It's this type of book that I want to have for the future." You're going to buy a physical book.
David Cancel: Definitely. And for books that I'm not sure about, I might go Kindle first. I end up buying some books twice. So perfect example is a book called Hooked. So the first time I read Hooked, which is about growth marketing, I bought the Kindle edition. So I read that, and then I highlighted enough areas in it and I wanted to share enough of it, and come back to it, then bought the physical copy.
Interviewer: Because you would just want to have that?
David Cancel: I want to have it. I think people get caught up on," Buying books and this, and buying it twice." And most of these books cost$ 8,$ 10. This is not a huge investment. But the ROI on books is phenomenal.
Interviewer: What is it that's so good about a book? Is it just, you're able to learn from somebody who has spent hours and hours and hours and months writing a book, and you just extend your lifetime a little bit by reading that?
David Cancel: Yes. So the Why books versus articles, and posts, and stuff like that, I think it's more considered. And then there are millions of books. So I will not say all books are great, but usually the stuff that I'm reading, the stuff that most people are reading, or things that have been recommended, and have stood the test of time, whether that amount of time is a year, or five years, or 10 years, or 50 years, they've stood the test of time. And so the stuff that keeps coming back and bubbling back up is worth having in that format.
Interviewer: So I was going to ask you about this. How do you curate your list of books? Are you ever actively, like," I need a new book, I go to Amazon, I search." Or do you have a running list somewhere of books that people have referenced, and you have an Evernote note where you just keep putting books you want to buy?
David Cancel: Good question. So when I hear about books that get recommended, I go to Amazon, I take a quick scan, and if it sounds intriguing to me, I just buy it immediately. And I have a stack of books that I'm getting through at home. There are some books that are on the fence, and those books I've created a private wishlist on Amazon called Library To Do. And so when I do need to get a book, I go into my Library To Do, and I can get a book out of there.
Interviewer: How do you feel about taking notes? Does taking notes, is that a personal thing? Or do you think that," If I were to read a book, does taking notes... Is that going to help me comprehend more? Or is that just a personal preference?
David Cancel: Some people can do this, they can actually take written notes. And for me, I'm visual, notes don't work for me, writing down notes, because I never come back to them. What I do is this system, which is, if it's a physical book, I use a highlighter or a pencil, and I highlight sections. And if it's a Kindle book, of course, I highlight that with the built- in highlight mechanism. But in both cases, what I do is I take out my phone and take pictures of all of the pages that I've highlighted. And then I have an Evernote note, I use Evernote to store these, and I put, Create A Note Per Book. And so for each book title, there'll be one note. And there'll be everything that I've ever highlighted in that book in one place.
Interviewer: So that way, when the book is done.. So say you read Hooked, great quote on page a 100.
David Cancel: Yes.
Interviewer: You don't have to go flip through it and find it, you can just go to your Evernote note, text search for it, then grab the book and go to that page?
David Cancel: Yes, exactly. Because these are photos, Evernote can OCR them, turn them into texts, and then I can search on them.
Interviewer: Do you do that while you're reading, or do you do do it after? Do you, in the middle of a chapter, put down the book, take a picture and put it in Evernote?
David Cancel: No, I used to do that, but it was way too distracting. So now I just highlight stuff, and then I keep a folded corner or a bookmark in Kindle of the last page that I've highlighted, and then at some point I go back, and then take a bunch of pictures, and then keep reading.
Interviewer: Your last thing to do before you're done with the book is process all your notes on it and then you're done with it?
David Cancel: Yes. And I don't do it at the very end of the book. I do it in stages. So I'm always have a queue of notes that I need to record.
Interviewer: All right. So we talked about physical books, we talked about a Kindle. You also read a ton of articles online, but you don't think that that's actually reading, but there's still good stuff in there.
David Cancel: There's great stuff. I do do a lot of that.
Interviewer: When do you do that? And maybe talk about when... I think a lot of us, I'm really guilty of this, is somebody sends me a link, and it might be quicker for me to just read it, then put it in pocket, but I always put it in pocket.
David Cancel: That's the one thing that I do different. I take a look at the article and if it's interesting to me, I will read it right there, and immediately. And because, two reasons, one, if I've just put it in pocket or some other bookmarking app, high likelihood, I never come back to it. Two, pocket is almost like another version of a to- do list, and I have the same problem with that as I do to- do lists, because now I have this cognitive load on my head, then now I'm thinking about this thing that I've archived, and that I need to come back to, instead, keeping track of all this load in your head is more effort than just reading the article in the first place. So I just read it. I do use pocket for articles that are on the bubble, just like I do with the to- do list inside a Library To- do Lists with an Amazon, there are some articles that are on the bubble, I stuff them in pocket, and I do do one thing that's different with pocket, which is, since I spend time in my car, but you could do this if you're commuting on the train, or walking to work. If you go into an article within pocket, and you go to the More menu, there is a way for pocket to read those articles to you. It's buried in the middle, they don't make it obvious. It's halfway between in the menu, it's called listen TTS. And you can click on that and then just listen to the article.
Interviewer: So you turn your article into audio book?
David Cancel: Yes.
Interviewer: Do you read multiple books at a time?
David Cancel: Yes, for me, I like to read multiple books at a time, and I'm usually reading some biography, I'm reading some book that I'm putting into practice now, which is usually some nonfiction business leadership type book. And then I usually have some entertainment thing that I'm reading, sometimes non- fiction, sometimes fiction. And depending on the time of day, the biographies, and the fiction are usually more at night, or if I have time during the day, but morning is always intentional, it's always something that I can use.
Interviewer: Because if you're reading that stuff at night, it's less important that you're retaining it fully, you're just reading about somebody or a fiction, where in the morning you want the nuggets of business and-
David Cancel: Totally, well, the morning stuff also, in non- fiction business stuff, is more tactical things, it's stuff that you want to act upon, versus the biographies, and some of the fiction books that you're reading. There are important lessons that you're learning in there, and a lot of those lessons, you need them to ferment while you're sleeping, for them to gestate and come up.
Interviewer: One of the pushbacks that a lot of people say about reading, is they read 20 pages, and it's just boring, and they're done.
David Cancel: I used to make this mistake all the time, which is, I used to think buying a book was this big thing. When again, in reality, you're spending between eight to$ 15 bucks on average for any book that you buy. But I created this big source of anxiety for myself and said," I bought this book, I'm bored after 20 pages, I must read this book. I got to finish it. I got to read the covers. I need to read the table of contents. I need to read the intro or the epilogue. I need to read every single piece of it." And what I figured out is, one, you need to give yourself permission to not finish books. There are certain books that you don't have to waste your time finishing. And you may come back to someday and want to read again, today might not be the right time to read this book. And all you need to do to make a worthwhile is to take one lesson out of the book. If you can learn one thing that you didn't know before from reading this book, that is$ 8 well- spent. That is eight lottery tickets, right there.
Interviewer: I wanted to remind you to say that, that's been the best lesson, which is, you don't have to get caught up in trying to comprehend all 300 pages, and you have 40 takeaways, and then write a five page paper on it. You said, if you can pull out one thing from a book, then that book was worth the$ 8 to$ 10-
David Cancel: Absolutely. I've taken many classes in school that I couldn't take one thing out of. And so just think I was talking to someone the other day on our team and inaudible, and he read Managing Oneself, a book that I love by Peter Drucker. It's a small book, it costs$ 6 bucks. And he said, he loved it, he enjoyed, and he said, " I really took away this one lesson from it." And I said, " That's all you needed. You just had the highest return on investment on$ 6 bucks, that you will ever have." You have one thing that is, he has implemented, and it's totally changing the way that he works.
Interviewer: It also helps you read faster too. You're not stressed out about every little single detail.
David Cancel: Reading a book is not memorizing a book. And with most books that matter, I end up reading them two, three, I've read some books four or five times. And the reason for that is that you have to be in the right context to get the right lesson out of each book. And so the first time you read it, you're coming into with one context and you might learn one or two things. The next time you read it, you'll discover two or three other things that you didn't realize that were there. And so you need to, with the great books, reread them.
Interviewer: Let's wrap with a couple books that have had the biggest impact on you. Could be recent, or maybe what are you reading now? You got a whole list.
David Cancel: Yes, I got so many. It's just so hard for you to know where to start. I've been diving back into a recent book that just came out, that's called Extreme Ownership. It's leadership lessons from two ex Navy seals, hardcore book, and just been diving back into it, I had scanned it a bit, read parts of it, and now I'm finishing that up. The other book that I've come back to, which is one of my favorites from a leadership standpoint is called Entree Leadership, and that was written by Dave Ramsey. I've read that book probably four times now. I just started relistening to that book on an audio book, because I want to come back to some of those lessons. And I'd say the two others for me are, Made In America, which was written by Sam Walton. It's a$ 5 paperback book written by probably the richest man in our lifetime. And so you can learn the lessons from the richest man in our lifetime for$ 5 bucks. And that is worth a 100 copies of the Four- hour Work Week, which will cost you four times as much. And then the last book that I go back to is Ben Horowitz's book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, I recommend that book a ton.