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Tips for Staying Smart: Read a Hard Book

I think that the two biggest qualities needed to remain competitive as a worker and leader in today's economy are knowing how to stay creative and how to stay smart (or at least stay learning).

I try to do each in a variety of ways, whether it's managing multiple ideas or setting up a brain trust.

One of the best ways I've found to stay smart is to read books - hard ones.

In 2008, almost half of all Americans read a book. This is apparently down from previous years, when it was estimated that 25% of Americans read no books at all. Chances are, most of those books were something like Harry Potter, something by Dan Brown, or The 4-Hour Workweek.

While those examples can be fun to read and help you relax, none really offer you a chance to draw conclusions, weigh the merits of in-depth research or question most of your assumptions about something.

This is why, (at least) once a year, you should read a hard book. Like the books you (were supposed to) read in college. Books with lots of footnotes and small font sizes. Books that don't start with "10 Ways to..." or "How to..."

I recently dug into The Revolution will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. I'll be honest: I picked it up because I thought it was a straightforward marketing book. I thought it was something Seth Godin or Peter Shankman would write, offering anecdotes, examples and advice. Instead, it's a collection of deep and detailed essays about the current state of the nonprofit sector and why foundation funding may not be a great route for nonprofits who are wanting to bring about systemic change via organizing.

At first, I thought about dropping it. The print was small, there were a lot of footnotes and I didn't see any diagrams, charts, or pictures.

Instead, I broke out my pen and highlighter and started underlining, bracketing and writing in the margins.

Reading a hard book once a year is a great way to stay smart. You'll uncover something in a deep way and develop a bit more discipline when it comes to your reading. These books can be hard to find because they're rarely bestsellers. So, ask your mentors or former professors what you should pick up. Then, stick with it - even if it eats up three months of your reading time. You'll be smarter for it.

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