Reading it Again, Backwards, With a Highlighter

I’m working with my team to implement lean product development practices (see Eric Ries, Marty Cagan, Steve Blank).  So I’ve proposed that we do some reading homework assignments, then gather to discuss.  First up: The Lean Startup.



This is my second reading the book.  Normally I’m not a fan of re-reading a book or re-watching a film (with the exception of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – a classic); life is too short and there are too many great books and movies still yet to be experienced.  But this is a great book, and I’m assigning it as homework, so the content had better be fresh to me.  To engage with the second reading I’m adopting some advice I received when working on my master’s thesis – someone suggested that to edit my writing effectively I need to see it with a new perspective, and one way to do that is to read it backwards, one paragraph at a time.  This allows you to separate each paragraph and deal with them independently.

When applied to re-reading a non-fiction book, I’m suggesting reading the major sections in order from back to front.  Major sections might mean full chapters, or if the chapters are themselves divided into subsections then it might mean reading the sub-sections in reverse order.  For The Lean Startup, this means starting with Chapter 14: Join The Movement!

I’ve found reading in reverse order also has unanticipated benefits, like giving your full attention to the second half of the book.  Sometimes the content of a book is so interesting that after the first half of the book, my mind is swimming with new thoughts and ideas, and by the second half of the book I’m distracted by my own thoughts, or find the material more familiar and less impactful.  But reading it in reverse order means you approach the end of the book afresh.

With a Highlighter

I remember reading somewhere that President Bill Clinton would always read with a pen in hand, and highlight or jot notes in the margins as he read.  This is a great practice.  The thinking goes, if you’re going to spend your time engaging with something, you might as well be all-in and give it your full attention and engagement.  This means highlighting passages that resonate, identifying points that you question, and capturing your reflections on the material.  When your time is limited (and if you have young children and an engaging job, then your time is definitely limited) the biggest cost of reading is your time.  Also, it’s worth it to buy your own copy (physical or Kindle) so you can highlight / take notes.

Both of these suggestions serve the same purpose – to make the best use of your time; life is too short.  If you’re not going to give a task  (a book, movie, lecture, etc) your attention, try hard not to do it all.  Don’t waste your time going through the motions.  And if you are going to give a task your attention, be open to ways to make the most of it.

p.s. I wouldn’t suggest this for fiction, unless maybe the Memento screenplay.

p.p.s If you haven’t seen that movie you should.

About brendansterne

Sr Director, Product Incubator
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