Based in New YOrk City, breaking the page is a blog by Pete Meyers. Posts cover content strategy and the art of modern message making.

Reading for a Reason

I’m on a quest to improve my media diet. To pay more attention to what’s good for me and to stop stuffing myself with things that leave me with the mental equivalent of a tummy ache. In an earlier post I wrote about the “wise learning machine” (WLM, for short) I’ve created in order to help. Here I want to focus on three very specific goals I have for this media makeover: 

#1: Mission-driven reading

This is about reading with a purpose. Specifically: identifying topics I’m interested in and which I want to learn more about. It’s my way of countering a bad habit I'd gotten into of mindless reading. 

Just as we sometimes mindlessly eat or watch TV or drink at a dinner party, mindless reading is the act of reading “just because.” Because we’re bored riding the subway. Because we just got an alert on our phone. Because we decided to check Twitter and ended up following that rabbit hole.

Reading with intent is a decision to reposition the locus of control over our attention. It’s a way of grabbing the “content feed” remote from these entities…

  • the editors of The New York Times
  • my iPhone
  • Donald Trump
  • my Twitter feed
  • the addictive tendencies of my thumb (pulling down on my phone for another hit of “more”)
  • whatever randomly shows up in my email inbox

…and saying: enough. You all, you’ve had your turn. Now, here’s what I’m interested in. For example, in my case:

  • Climate change. What exactly is going on? How can I improve my understanding so I don’t just feel this amorphous blob of fear, but instead gain some clarity around what’s happening. (Maybe in the end I’ll still feel freaked out, but at least I’ll know what I’m talking about.) And also: what I can I do as both an informed, power-wielding citizen and as parent to help protect those I love?
  • Reading experience design. This one’s very specific to me. It’s my (self-created) speciality within content strategy. The domain where I do everything from help banks and consultancies create more effective “thought leadership” to working on projects like WLM with an eye towards improving how I learn.
  • Death and dying. Sounds morbid, I know. But for a variety of reasons I’m deeply interested in this topic. From the particular mechanics of how, exactly, the body stops functioning to the ways (at peace, in strife, with fear, in awe) others have approached their ends. 

I have a few other big picture topics I’m interested in. But just these three alone have given me plenty of fuel for this “mission-driven” reading quest. With these topics in mind, I have both a reason to read and plenty of associated questions that I use to find things to pay attention to. And not just books, but also blogs, video learning courses, lectures, interesting people, and on and on.

To help keep track of these various "missions" I jot down brief reminders. Here, for example, is what I wrote for Reading Experience Design:

 Left: a mission statement in WLM for a topic I call “Reading Experience Design.” Right: I also list, separately, goals for all my high-priority topics. The mission captures my “why”; the goals capture my “what.”

Left: a mission statement in WLM for a topic I call “Reading Experience Design.” Right: I also list, separately, goals for all my high-priority topics. The mission captures my “why”; the goals capture my “what.”

#2: Contemplate more than I consume

One of my biggest overall goals with WLM is to read less and think more. In other words, I want to reduce the volume of stuff I pour into my head. 

Rather than having my intake aperture always open, I’m trying to make room for thinking about (and perhaps writing a little about) what I’ve just read or watched or listened to. Partly this is a way of challenging my assumption that what others have to say on a topic is more important than anything I could ever contribute. And with so much material available from these parties, I must therefore consume as much of it as I can. 

Without devaluing the vital work of professionals in any domain, this stance puts me perpetually in a kind of passive student mode. Sitting quietly in my virtual seat waiting for them to tell me what they know. That’s no way to learn. 

And no matter how high quality the material I’m reading is, if it’s always coming at me, then when do I have a chance to do anything with it? This gets at the underlying purpose of why we — or at least I — read. As much as I love the life of the mind, I’m increasingly interested in applying what I learn to various activities in my life. In order to do that, I need to give myself the mental space to react, to reflect, to ingest what I’ve read. So: contemplate more than I consume. 

#3: Build my own briefing book

We live in a time when you can look up more or less anything. But for all my dependence on sources ranging from Alexa to Wikipedia to the many, many books I love....all those items feel to me like they fall under the category of “Theirs.” I want something that in both literal and figurative terms is “Mine.” 

WLM gives me a way to do that. At its core are the individual notes (I call them “findings”) which describe something I’ve learned. Could be “how audiobooks improve comprehension” or “CO2 levels — the history of” or “the power of failure.” Together, over time, WLM represents a kind of digital file cabinet of these nuggets. 

 "Findings" are my individual notes in WLM. For topics I'm especially interested in, I create one — called "Big Picture" — that's a quick summary of what I currently know.

"Findings" are my individual notes in WLM. For topics I'm especially interested in, I create one — called "Big Picture" — that's a quick summary of what I currently know.

Some of you may be familiar with a long forgotten tradition of “commonplace books.” Popular in Early Modern Europe, they were scrapbooks of knowledge. People like John Locke and Carl Linnaeus would copy down interesting passages from others’ books, add in a few notes, and then keep — and occasionally publish and share — these journals. What I love about this idea and, by extension, a modern implementation of it is....so many things. 

First of all, it’s a place to commingle what others know with my own reactions and further reflections. So it’s a way to help with that previous goal of increasing the amount of contemplation I’m doing. 

Second, by building something like this using modern digital tools (I use a note-taking program called DEVONThink), I can mix and match and review and fiddle with the stuff I’m culling. I can of course search my collection; I can view everything I’ve tagged that relates to “mindfulness” or “recall” or whatever. I can print typographically rich doodles and tape them to the outside of my wallet so I look at them a few times each day. 

Finally, for each of my high-priority topics I use a lightweight organizational scheme that helps me organize and plan how I learn. For example, I have a section called “What Next” where I collect a list of what to read and watch. It functions kind of like Goodreads, but instead of collecting a list of books, it has all the different items (podcasts, links, people to meet with) I want to consult.  

 For each of my high priority topics in WLM, I have a few ways of chunking up what I know, what I’m interested in learning more about, and why I’m interested in this topic,

For each of my high priority topics in WLM, I have a few ways of chunking up what I know, what I’m interested in learning more about, and why I’m interested in this topic,

So those are three of the biggest tangible things I get out of WLM:

  1. Reading with a mission
  2. Contemplating more than I consume
  3. Building my own briefing book

I’ve been using this system for about a year now and it’s radically changed the way I read. 

Building a “Wise Learning Machine”