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The Learning Success Blog

Leadership Expert John Spence: Reading is Path to School & Life Success

Posted by Colin Klupiec on May 17, 2016 at 5:29 PM

John_Spence.pngJohn Spence is an international business thought leader and influencer, and also a guest lecturer at universities such as Harvard, Stanford and The University of Pennsylvania.

According to John, reading is the path to success at school and in business. John is an avid reader, and claims that reading has made a lasting impact on his life and career. He reads 100 to 200 books a year.

I caught up with John on the Learning Capacity podcast to find out more about his story, and what insights he has for Australian & New Zealand students, parents and educators.

Listen to the podcast:

Topics covered

  1. Reading 100 - 200 books a year
  2. Reading to learn
  3. The importance of reading
  4. How to make time for reading

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Multiple Sclerosis Society
  2. MS Readathon
  3. John Lee Dumas
  4. Entrepreneur on Fire Podcast
  5. Leonardo Da Vinci
  6. University of Miami
  7. John Taylor Gatto

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Weapons of Mass Instruction

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:


 Episode 60 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Leadership Expert John Spence: Reading is the Path to School Success


Colin Klupiec: John Spence, thanks for joining us.

John Spence: It's my pleasure. It's my honor to be here, Colin.

Colin: First of all, I just want to give our listeners a bit of a background. I was listening to an interview you gave with John Lee Dumas on Entrepreneur on Fire a couple of months ago and you were talking about your business. I thought that was quite interesting.

I really enjoyed that but then towards the end, you started talking about the importance of reading and I thought, "Hello, hang on, this is important to me and to my audience." Being a podcaster, I thought, "Well, okay, there's an opportunity here for us to collaborate."

So towards the end, you said people can contact you, they can write you an email, and I thought, "Well, I can write an email," so I did.

John: Yeah.

Colin: So I did and you responded and here we are talking about how to make reading better for children around the world. I just think that's really cool. 

John: I love...and actually you're the third person I've talked to today from that podcast.

Colin: Is that right?

John: The other two were small business owners that sent me notes and said, "I'm struggling in my business, I need some help, I need to know how to get ahead. Can you spare 20 or 30 minutes for me?" I had two wonderful conversations.

So isn't it neat that we live in a world today where, like you, we can find somebody who's interesting that we want to connect to. Just send them an email and you're on the phone a couple of days later. That didn't happen 25 years ago.

Making the very complex awesomely simple

Colin: No. No, it didn't. Look, I want to start with your tagline. I loved that when I saw that, "Making the very complex awesomely simple." Do you realise that you might have just invented the ultimate tagline for all teacher education?

John: Well, it's taken from a couple of other taglines, one of them from one of my heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci, that said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." But I learned that, and your teachers know this, it's very easy to make something extremely complex. It's exceedingly difficult to make it awesomely simple but that's the best way for people to learn.

Colin: When did you realise that it was your thing? I mean, let me put it to you this way. When did you realise that you had a key that could unlock the complexity code?

John: We might get into this a little bit more deeper later but it's when I understood that in almost every area of learning, there's an underlying pattern. That if you study something long enough and deeply enough and really give it some serious thought, all of a sudden a pattern emerges and you start to understand at a level that other people don't understand it. 

To me, it's when you see that pattern that complex things become very simple and clear to understand because you get them down to their most fundamental elements.

Colin: People listening to you talking like that now and thinking about what you do for a living, you travel the world helping people to understand that, but they might be thinking, "Well, that's fine for you," because maybe you're just naturally gifted or you had a ray of sunshine which helped you understand or maybe somehow your education was privileged.

But your start to college education or what we would call university education wasn't that straightforward. Can you tell us about that?

John: Yeah. Well, we'll go back even a little further. I was privileged when I grew up. I grew up the son of a very famous attorney, or a barrister as you might call it, and went to a private prep school, and in high school, hated to read, absolutely hated it.

The only reason I would read was so I could play sport because you had to have a certain GPA and you had to do a book report during the summer if you wanted to come back and play football in the fall. So I resisted reading as much as I humanly could and did the minimum amount possible.

And then when I graduated, I had the opportunity to go to several different universities and I chose the University of Miami in Miami, Florida because that's where I grew up and that where my boat and my girlfriend were.

I had a little fishing boat and a girlfriend, which is why I wasn't particularly serious about school. I literally did not show up for class until the midterm exams the first year. I bought the books. I got the syllabus, I went to the beach. 

Which is why, a year and a half into college, I was kicked out of the University of Miami, which was especially notable because my father was one of the top alumni ever to graduate from that college. He was on the board of directors of the university the year I got kicked out and there was a building on the campus named after my father. So you got to really mess up to get kicked out of a university where there's a building named after your family.

Colin: That sounds like a good story there.

John: Yeah.

Colin: So reading really wasn't your thing. Hey, listen to come back to you, I need to confess to you that reading wasn't really my thing either. It is now but can I tell you my confession story?

John: Well please do, please, please.

Colin: We have a fundraiser here in Australia for the Multiple Sclerosis Society and it's called the MS Readathon. I believe it still runs and that's where you get young children in primary school to collect money for all the books that they've read.

Year after year, the paperwork comes around and you take it home and you start to collect sponsorships.

And I hated reading. I just couldn't see the point of it. I thought it was boring. I couldn't find anything that engaged me. So, well, my confession is that not every book on the list that I collected money for was actually read.

John: Uh-oh.

One million children at risk of reading failure

Colin: Look, it sounds terrible but I'm sure the charity was willing to turn a blind eye to that. So let's talk specifically about reading. A recent research report released here in Australia suggests that about 1 million children are at risk of reading failure and I'm just going to draw a long bow here but I suspect there could be similar things going on in the United States where you are. 

In fact, here it gets a lot worse in Australia. About one-third of children under 15 are not reading to the national minimum standard and some other research which supports this also says that the ability level in a year group, like in any year group in high school, in terms of reading can sometimes be measured in years and not months.

Now, as an avid reader of books yourself and an international level advisor to management, what kind of emotion does that make you feel when you consider the implications for our educational managers?

John: Oh, it's terrifying. It's terrifying because the foundation of leadership, of greatness, of being able to make a contribution back to your community and your world is in large part tied to your ability to come up with great ideas, use ideas you've learned, and be well-educated.

Not educated necessarily at university or graduate school but being self-educated, being a lifelong learner, and being committed to what I call personal Kaizen, continuous incremental improvement 1% every day, and reading is a foundation of all that.

Colin, we are suffering from the same thing in our country. Americans, "Oh, we're great, we're America, we're the leader." No. We're number 26 in the world in reading and number 36 in the world in math. 

Colin: Yeah.

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Teachers not as well respected or well paid as they should be

John: As an American, I say, "It'd be pretty hard to find 35 other countries that kick our butt in math and science but that's where we are. It's because our school systems are struggling, our teachers aren't nearly as well-respected or well-paid as they need to be because they hold the future of our country in their hands.

And budgets around the entire country for reading and other things, other stuff that's fundamental, what we would call STEM research, is dwindling and it's...I'm trying to think of an analogy but it's killing the golden goose.

I mean, you're wiping out the very thing that could continue to make our country great, which is a well-educated youth.

Colin: Yeah. I'm reading a book actually by an author called John Taylor Gatto, I'm not sure whether you've heard of him. The book is called "Weapons of Mass Instruction," and it's interesting that I'm reading a book about that. Again, there's the importance of reading straight away. In order to learn about the history of something, it's good to be able to read or at least to want to read.

He tells the story about a how a principal asked him to start a program to develop critical thinking. His response was, "Sure, but if you do this properly, your school is going to become unmanageable," and the principal says, "What?"

He goes, "Well, can you imagine if you suddenly all of these hundreds and hundreds of students become critical thinkers and effective communicators? Do you really think they're going to put up with the nonsense that you force down their throat every day?"

So my mind immediately went back to "The Matrix," where Morpheus looks at Neo and says, "All I can offer you is the truth. You take the red pill and you get the truth. You get the blue pill and you wake up in your bed and you go back to believing whatever it is that you want to believe."

Somehow, I see an analogy there with the whole reading thing. People just can scoot through life and everything is worked out. Everything seems to be working but there's not a lot going in. Do you know...there's not a lot of stuff there to support what you think. So people have a lot of opinions but they're not necessarily informed.

So coming back to why reading has meant such a big deal for you, I think that telling poor readers to read more is a bit like telling a really anxious person to just calm down and don't worry.

So let's not think about exactly what you might say to educational leaders at this point. We'll come to that in a bit, but why has reading made such an impact to you, to you personally over the last couple of decades?

The answers are in the books

John: Well, it's been very clear to me. I'm a fairly competitive person. I like to win. I like to be good at what I do, it's important to me. When I was failing out of college, I had a college professor come over and he heard me saying that I really needed to get better grades. 

I had been kicked out of university and I was in what we call here in America a community college, which is two tiers down, and if I got good enough grades there, I could reapply to university. And I was telling my friends, "I've got to do well, I've got to do well."

This professor walked in and said, "I can tell you how to get straight As in college. It's very easy. Would you like to know?"

I said, "Yeah, yeah." He said, "Number one, read the books." He said, "At least in college, 90% of the answers are in the books. If you'll just read the books, you're 85%, 90% of the way there.

Number two, ask for help, ask your teachers, ask the TAs, ask the professors, ask the other students. Do not be afraid to ask for help from everyone.

Number three was start study groups and find the other bright students that want to get good grades, that want to study, that are interested in this, that are enjoying what they're doing and hang out with them."

It was as soon as I started reading the books that I went from failing to being at the top of the class. Now again, I wasn't a big reader but I understood that reading was the path to success in school.

That, again, 90% of everything I would need to be outstanding, to win in school was in the books.

Colin: All you had to do was open them. 

Reading 50 books a year

John: I know. It's magical. And then when I graduated from university and got my first job, I looked around at my fellow folks that were around my age. I was reading at that time probably 50 books a year, a book, maybe two, three books a month, something like that, all business, on leadership, communication, strategy, the things that I would need to do well in my job.

And the first year they went to give out bonuses, everybody got 500 bucks and I got $1,000. 

Colin: Oh, wow.

Reading equalled success in college, in career and higher income

John: The next year, everyone got 1000 bucks and I got 3000 bucks. The next year, everyone got 3000 bucks and I was named CEO of the company at 26 years old. I realised it wasn't because I was brilliant. It's because I'd been reading and studying and learning all these things and I had access to ideas that other people didn't.

Didn't make me a genius. I wasn't smarter than anyone else. I just had more fodder, more information in my brain, more ideas I learned from other people, so I had more suggestions and ideas about how to help and grow the company.

So I was able to look at my life and very clearly see that reading equaled success in college, reading equaled success in my career, and reading equaled great success in my income. I know that roughly I make about another 1000 bucks a year for every book I read.

100 - 120 books a year for the last 25 years

Hence, I've been trying to read 100 to 120 books a year every year for the last 25 years and it's pretty much kept pace from that time.

So I see the value just in how it's impacted my life, my family's life, my business life, my career. It's been the major determinant. 

Colin: Let's just come back to some research though because the research that was talked about recently here in Australia suggested about two-thirds of children will actually need specific reading instruction or even significant intervention. 

The research also cites some reports from America that suggested the percentage over where you are is actually quite a lot higher, that much more than two-thirds of students will need specific instruction for reading.

Now, you went from hating reading to now voraciously chewing up books. Was that a hard transition?

John: It was an extremely hard transition and I'll say this part is too is I came from a family of readers. My father was a fanatic reader. I mean he would read literally almost a book a day.

Colin: Wow.

You become what you focus on 

John: But I did not get that gene from him. So the transition from not being a reader at all to being a voracious reader was very challenging and it took a lot of effort. However, I will also say that the people I looked up to around me were all big readers.

It's the most important thing I've ever learned in my life. You become what you focus on and like the people you spend time with.

I think one of the big roadblocks we have here in America is that parents don't spend enough time reading with their kids. If my father hadn't been a voracious reader, I probably would have been in even worse situation. 

My mother was a great reader too and it wasn't until that I started to get into it and I saw the positive impacts that I looked back at my parents and realised that their success, especially my father's, was in large part due to their curiosity and their time...willing to invest in reading.

But it's a skill. It's not something you're just, "Well, I'm an awesome reader, I can understand everything I read!"

Colin: Yeah.

John: It takes a lot of practice and skill.

Study groups help you to enjoy reading and be more successful

Colin: Yeah. You started one of those study groups. That was some advice that you got but you then actually did start one. Were the people who come to your study group also avid readers?

John: Yeah and here's an interesting thing. I'll just say this from a school standpoint. What we did is there was six of us that were all in the same major, studying the same thing, had the same classes. What we did is we divided the work up.

"Colin, you read chapters 1 through 5. I'll read chapter 6 through 10. Sue, you go read the extra page," and we could come and teach each other. So together, we helped each other enjoy the reading more, enjoy class more, be more successful together.

When I graduated, we graduated and did numbers one through six from the university we graduated from. So obviously the results were there. 

Fast-forward to today, I'm 52 years old, I still have a study group. I have a mastermind group of CEOs that come to my house once every 45 days or so and we assign each other books. We all read a book, we get together, we talk about it. We talk about the skill. 

So even today I try to surround myself with people that are voracious learners, critical thinkers, and see the value of reading for improving their lives at multiple levels.

Reading filters

Colin: I'm just doing some numbers here whilst you're talking. You've probably had a look at maybe several thousand books then over your time. Something I heard you mention in that interview with John Lee Dumas was that you've got some filters for determining how much attention you give to an author.

I loved that concept. I thought, "Wow," because sometimes I read a book and I think, "Oh, gee, do I really have to grind my way through this?" So when I start a book, I feel that I've automatically committed to it, but you don't.

So if a student, if a child is struggling to find reading material that engages, what advice would you give them to find it less of a grind? Can we start to teach children those filters early on too?

John: Yeah. Well, there's a slight difference, Colin, which is at you and I stage in our lives, we get to read whatever we want. As a student, often they're assigned books that truly aren't that great or that interesting. So there's part of it...I know.

Well, it's one of the things I learned too is it's a game. Education is a game and reading is one of the ways you win the game. So if you want to get good grades and win the game, every now and then reading a book you're not especially excited about or frankly don't even care for is part of the game and part of the deal.

However, I think it's a great learning experience to read a book that you're not particularly enjoying and ask yourself why. "Why am I not engaged? Why is this not interesting to me? Why am I not enjoying reading this book?"

One of my filters, reading for pleasure or for fun, is if I get 50 pages into a book and I haven't learned anything new and I'm not really excited about it and I'm not engaged and having fun, I just won't read any further. 

Because if I figure if the author can't give me something compelling, exciting, interesting in the first 50 pages of a 250-page book, I'm not going to give him another 200 pages to prove I was right, which is one of the reasons that libraries are so great and things like that.

I buy all my books now because if it's really good, I want to keep it and put it on the shelf and study it again and read it again. If it's bad, I put it in a box and I donate it to our local library.

But for a while in college and after college, I lived at the library. I actually took one day a week when I was a consultant and made it my library day. I would get breakfast, go to a library, and stay there all day and then leave, have lunch, and come back; leave, have dinner and come back, and spend an entire day once a week at the library doing nothing but reading and studying ......just going in and going, "That book looks interesting, let me read some of it."

Colin: Yeah, I guess educational leaders will talk a lot about the importance of reading but sometimes when I hear all the rhetoric going around, I reckon sometimes that they just want people to know...sorry, they just want it to sound like people know how to read.

They're more interested in knowing whether or not a student can actually read rather than whether the student likes to read or whether they're reading to actually learn something.

Reading is critical to your ongoing learning. With the amount of books you read, I can't imagine that you remember every single thing. You've mentioned talking about drawing the patterns together. Can you talk to us more about that?

Reading for a specific purpose

John: Sure. Sure. You've hit on something really important, Colin, is I read things for a specific reason. I'm reading to learn new ideas, new information, things I can use to help myself, to help my clients.

So I've got a very clear purpose when I pick up a book. Now, I do read a lot of history and philosophy and other stuff just for the sheer fun of it but the bulk of the books I read, I'm reading with a very clear purpose.

So a couple of things happen there. Number one is I know what I'm looking for. I know what I'm trying to learn. I do a lot of underlining. If I get a point or an idea, I pull out a yellow pen, or if I'm reading it on my iPad, I've got one of those little stylus, I underline it. I also have created a system of notes to myself. A pound sign, or what they would call a hash mark today tells me it's a number to remember, Q is "This is a great quote," and R with a circle around says, "Reread this."

I've got a whole bunch of those. If something is really good, I'll draw a line next to it. If it's really, really good, two lines. If it's something that will change my life, I put a couple stars next to it.

Then when I get to an end of a book that I've enjoyed, I immediately go back to the beginning and read just the underlining and the big stars and the reread stuff. So I immediately go back and get an overall summary. Then I take my journal out and I will write down, one page or two pages, the major ideas I took away from that book.

And then what I'll do is reread that a couple of times. So I'm able to take a 300-page book, through underlining, get it down to maybe 20 or 30 pages, then through studying that, get that down to maybe two or three pages of big, big ideas. Then it's easy to remember a book. You don't remember all 300 pages, but I can remember three or four big ideas.

Colin: So let's say that kids are sick of hearing this sort of thing from their teachers because what you've just described is, I guess, similar to that whole summary thing. You know, a teacher comes into the room, "Here's the book. You've been assigned the book.

We're two weeks in, what have you got? You should have made some summaries." But for some reason, that message isn't really getting through as effectively and as enthusiastically as to what you've just described.

If you were given your chance to try and describe the importance of what you've just mentioned, that process that you've just outlined, to children, what's the main vibe that you would try to get across to them?

Reading is a path to everything you dream of

John: Wow, that's a tough question. There'd be two parts to it. Part one is I would want to understand where they're trying to go, what are their goals, what's important to them, do they want to do well in school, do they want to be an artist, what do they want to be when they grow up, and helping them understand that reading will get them there.

That reading is a path to everything they dream of and lack of reading will be a big wall, a brick wall that will be very hard to get over. So understanding the importance of reading and that it's going to take you where you want to go. 

The other thing, I would say, is helping them understand the fun of being able to take a big book and get it down to some ideas that you understand. Stuff that you can use, stuff that frankly makes you smarter and seem smarter and enjoy a more curious and fun life because you understand stuff at different level.

It's not fun to be someplace where you don't understand things, you're anxious, you're overwhelmed, you're confused.

Reading and other learning things allow you to enjoy the world more fully because you have ideas to understand things at a little bit deeper level how things work, how they intertwine, what the pattern is, and that makes your life a lot more fun and exciting.

Colin: Let's talk about time. If I suggested to teachers that they should start something new, like a new reading group or a study group or some new program for implementation, usually the response that I get, and this is a response that I hear all the time, is, "I don't have the time. Where am I going to get the time? I'm too busy."

Now, I know that this might resonate with you because you spend a lot of time on the road, from what I hear, a couple of hundred days a year on the road. And a comment that you made in that last interview was you don't have any more time that you can sell because there are only 360...

John: Right.

Colin: There are only 365 days in a year. If you come across that response where teachers say, "I just don't have the time," what's your response to that?

What are you going to say no to?

John: A very simple answer, what are you going to say no to? Look at what you're doing right now that isn't truly adding value, that's less important than what you're talking about and figure out a way to say no to it. I don't watch TV. The average American watches, what was it, 20 hours of TV to 30 hours a week every week.

Colin: Wow.

If it's important to you, you'll find time to read

John: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it's basically they spend almost an equivalent amount of time at work as they do watching TV. It's scary. I don't go to movies. Maybe once or twice a year if it's big. I don't go to the mall. So I don't do anything that doesn't...I'm really clear about my values and the things that are most important to me and my wife; we don't have children, but together in our lives.

If something doesn't meet those values and it really isn't important in my life, I've spent years building up the courage to say, "No, I'm not going to do that."

People will say, "You don't understand, John. I don't have things I can say no to. I'm busy and I got kids, I got..." No, you're wrong. There's hours there. If it's important enough to you, you will find something to say no to or you will find 5 minutes out of this and 3 minutes out of that and 10 minutes out of that.

I work with CEOs of hundred-billion dollar companies who tell me, "John, I have no more time. I'm running a hundred hours a week, I'm on airplanes...blah, blah, blah." At the end of the week, I can usually find three to four hours that was just wasted time.

Colin: Yeah, sure.

John:  And go, "Now, you can continue to waste this time if you want to but I've just found three hours or four hours for you that you can spend with your family or you could spend on your health or you could spend reading." So it all comes down to what are you willing to say no to?

Colin: Okay. Two final questions and we'll finish with this.

John: Sure.

A message for educational leaders

Colin: They're short questions. A final message to our educational leaders?

John: The world is in your hands.

A message to children about reading

Colin: And a final message to our children when it comes to reading?

John: Reading will allow you to change the world and live the life you've always dreamed of living.

Colin: John Spence, it's been an absolute inspiration. Thank you so much for your time.

John: Oh, it's my pleasure and my honor and thank you for what you're doing. It's insanely important to all the kids and teachers that are listening to this podcast.

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