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I Don't Need to Remember Everything I Read

Unless there's a test

I often worry about forgetting the ideas I find in non-fiction books. And, apparently, I’m not the only one.

The Internet is filled with countless tips and apps and services to help us make sure we’ll never forget any of the lines we highlight. One of the most-watched YouTube videos on the topic, titled “I learned a system for remembering everything,” has been watched over 8 million times.

People think they must remember what they read.

Why? This idea might come from three beliefs:

  1. Knowledge is power. The more knowledge you have, the more powerful you are.
  2. Forgetting leads to failure. Years and years of schooling showed us that reading is what we do when we study. And studying is what happens before the test. If you don’t remember what you read, here comes a D.
  3. Reading without remembering is a waste.

Remembering and learning, however, are two different things.

I remember an idea because I learned it, not the other way around. And I learn best when an idea surprises me by challenging one of my existing beliefs.

Not all ideas in a book have that effect on me.

Those that do have such an impact are usually the ones worth implementing. Putting the advice into practice, in turn, helps me internalise the theory.

To quote Tony Robbins, a self-help guru I’m not really a fan of, “Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is only potential power. Action is power.” In other words, it’s the doing that leads to change and growth — not the Post-it note.

So, if you’re reading books to improve yourself or learn a new skill, you might just want to relax a little bit. But if you’re reading to pass an exam, then don’t listen to anything I’ve just said.

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