Every year I write up a quick summary of the books I read in the previous 12 months, and pick some of my favourites to recommend. Here’s the 2018 breakdown!Read More
Why do we associate well cultivated lawns with social status and prestige? It's something we absolutely take for granted every day as just a permanent fact of life. However, by examining the history of things like this, we can come to understand the real value of studying history as a whole.Read More
"The achievement of one courageous man will awaken the courage of an entire generation" - Stefan Zweig
I recently discovered the story of Ferdinand Magellan - the famous explorer who captained the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the globe. The story as told by the excellent Stefan Zweig had me completely captivated from start to finish, and I’ve had it on my mind ever since.Read More
In the 1930s, a Hungarian born journalist named George Mikes moved to London. However, even after a decade or so living and working in London Mikes discovered, as I imagine many others have done since, that the British have a peculiar set of behaviours, rules and customs that make it near impossible for someone not born here to blend in completely.Read More
Last week, I wrote about Grit, the excellent book written by Angela Duckworth. In it, she makes a compelling case for why the most important personality trait to develop is not talent, it's grit.
The most successful people in any domain, whether they are Olympic athletes or leading scientists, tend to have very high levels of grit. They don't quit things easily and have a long term goal that remains unchanged for very long periods of time.
Fortunately, the message of the book is that your level of grit can change over time. I wanted to revisit one more idea before moving on because it has been something I've been thinking about over the last few days. Duckworth calls it 'The Hard Thing Rule'.
The Hard Thing Rule
The Hard Thing rule is a rule that Duckworth's family has in place, and it's designed to help her family (and particularly her kids) to develop their level of grit. There are three main aspects:
- Everyone has to do a hard thing.
The first part of the rule is that everyone has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice, such as playing the piano or playing a sport. As mentioned in my previous post, deliberate practice is a specific type of focused practice in which you deliberately stretch yourself and get out of your comfort zone. You focus on the areas you are weakest and develop strategies for improving them.
Deliberate practice is not particularly fun, but it is an incredibly efficient way to improve. This is why you need a high level of grit to do it consistently. And also this is why it's called the "Hard Thing" rule.
- You can quit, but not any time.
The second part of the Hard Thing rule is that you are allowed to quit, but not until a 'natural' stopping point arrives. That means you can't quit until the football season is over, or this term's music lessons are done. The goal is to finish whatever your begin and so you cannot quit just because you had a bad day, or someone shouted at you, or you feel disheartened about your progress.
- You get to pick your hard thing.
The third part of the Hard Thing rule is that each person gets to pick the thing that they want to work on. An intrinsic part of being gritty is being passionate and interested in what you're doing, so it's important that you pick an activity you are interested in from the beginning. Being forced to play the piano when you always hated it will not lead to developing grit, it will lead to resentment and wasted time.
These are the three main aspects of the Hard Thing Rule, but Duckworth mentions that since her kids are getting a bit older they are introducing a fourth part:
4. Two year commitments.
You must commit to at least one activity (whether new or continuing an old one) for at least two years. This ties back to the second aspect of the rule. The goal is to become the sort of person that finishes whatever he or she starts, and doesn't quit easily. Long term commitments like this will help develop grit more effectively.
Practice makes perfect
To some, the Hard Thing Rule may appear harsh or too strict, but it's hard to refute the reasoning behind it given that it's coming from the woman who literally wrote the book on this!
If you believe the research Duckworth talks about then developing grit is essential to going far in your domain of expertise. If your ambition is to be the very best that you can be in some area then you simply have to be (or become) a gritty person. Lucky for us, it is possible to build up your grit, but it takes practice. The Hard Thing Rule is a great example of how you can build in systems and rules that specifically target grit growth.
For me, my Hard Thing is to write for this blog every day. I don't manage to publish every day, but I make sure to at least write for a set period of time. It's not particularly easy and there are days when I struggle to bring myself to do it, but the Hard Thing Rule is my new favourite motivation.
“I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.” — Charles Darwin
Angela Duckworth explains that succeeding in life has more to do with how gritty you are than things like 'talent', 'passion' or 'genius'.Read More
At the beginning of the year, my goal was to write something every day. It was a deliberately ambitious mission because it's only by stretching yourself that you can hope to improve.
I started off well in January with 10 entries out of a possible 30, but February turned out to be an unmitigated disaster - just 1 post in the whole month!
The funny thing about setting goals for yourself is that if they aren't ambitious enough then you're unlikely to develop or to feel proud of your accomplishment at the end. On the other hand, goals that are TOO stretching are easy to abandon as hopeless.
I believe the mistake I made last month was that once I had gone a couple of days without a post, I decided that in order to make up for it my next one would have to be really long or really detailed. The handful of times that I did start to write something, I realised that my intended topic was far too large, but instead of cutting it down or simply starting with one portion, I stopped writing at all and went to do something different.
Still, the time has come to get back on the horse, so to speak.
This is me pressing the reset button and refocusing on what I decided at the beginning of the year was an important goal.
Watch this space!
Half way through last year, I decided that I wanted to learn to speak Chinese. It was largely inspired by the trip I took in February to Beijing and then Hong Kong which was an amazing experience. However, like many other people have found, Chinese is quite difficult and I was in a hurry to make progress. I had naively figured that a couple of months of self taught lessons would see me chatting conversationally in Mandarin. When I struggled to make progress as quickly as I wanted, I soon got dispirited and put it to one side.
I told myself that it would just be temporary until I found a big chunk of quality time that I could dedicate to it. Well, surprise surprise, I never found the one big chunk of time and I still can't speak Chinese.
I'm sure I'm not the only one to experience something like this. Most often we are in a real hurry to reach our goals as quickly as possible, and run the risk of giving up entirely if we don't see the results we expected.
So, we end up framing the problems in the same way over and over again: What's the fastest way to lose 30lbs? What's the quickest way to learn a new language? How quickly can I read this book?
However, there are other frames that we unduly neglect. How would you approach your goals if you had 2 years to achieve them? Or 10 years? Is it possible that small things done consistently are more powerful than a whirlwind of intensity that goes nowhere?
Take, for instance, reading books. The power of small actions, done consistently are impressive.
Making some conservative estimates, let's say it takes 2 minutes to read one page of a book, and that an average book has 250 pages. If you could dedicate 15 minutes every day to reading a book, you would get through nearly 11 books over the course of the year. Sure, that's not exactly a world record, but it's a decent number and with the absolute minimum of effort required. The only difficult thing is that you do it every day.
Now imagine it took you only 90 seconds to read a page, and you were able to dedicate 30 minutes per day. Now you're on track to read 33 books in the next year!
This is a lesson that may be obvious when it's spelled out, but it's hard to put into practice. If I had broken my Chinese learning goal into small, daily steps that I could stick to consistently, most likely I would now be in with a chance of seeing some results! And what's more, once you have decided to commit yourself to the small, but consistent approach, you give yourself permission not to see results right away and to go easy on yourself.
What good is the ambition to develop yourself if your learning cycle consists of bursts of enthusiasm followed by beating yourself up that you didn't achieve what you wanted? I still want to learn Chinese, but all I have to show for the last 6 months is frustration that I've not been more self disciplined.
No doubt, sometimes fast and intense are the right approach. It is possible to learn a new skill quickly. There are super efficient ways to get in shape and lose loads of weight. If I had moved to China last year and immersed myself in the language, then I'm sure I'd be speaking at least conversationally by now.
But sometimes, it's okay to take the slow and steady approach. What would you change if you decided you were going to do one small thing consistently for the next 365 days?
I am a big believer in the value of thinking deeply about your career. I graduated from university in 2011 having spent literally no time at all thinking about what I should do next, and spent the next 6 months waiting tables at a five star hotel. When my perfect job didn’t fall into my lap after that point, I figured maybe there was something I could be doing more proactively.
So, I followed the only career advice that everyone knows is true: follow your passion. I got a job working for the English Lacrosse Association. A life spent teaching, talking and playing lacrosse all day was my idea of paradise so I promptly moved to London and took up my new job spreading the game in the South East of England.
Unfortunately, as everyone really knows deep down, “Follow Your Passion” is truly horrible career advice. As Cal Newport has persuasively argued in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is something that comes as a consequence of becoming really good at what you do. You need to develop skills that are ‘rare and valuable’. As you improve your skills, you will become so good that you will have more ability to control important things like where you work, who you work for and how much you earn. Most importantly though, people become passionate about things they are really good at.
Exceptions to the rule are easy to find, certainly. No doubt David Beckham was passionate about football before he was a super star, but we can’t base our decisions on the lives of outliers alone.
So, is that the answer? Become really really good at something? Almost, but not totally.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the research that has shown that the ingredients for a truly fulfilling career are: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. (And no, passion is not a prerequisite).
Mastery means that people are motivated by improving themselves and mastering a skill - further support for the value of developing a rare and valuable skill set as proposed by Cal Newport. In addition, the more you become so good that you can’t be ignored, the more autonomy you will receive. That could be because you receive promotions and so become the boss, or because you strike out on your own with your expert skill set ready to support you.
However, what’s not covered is most certainly the most important one: Purpose.
So how do you find purpose?
The short, blog sized, answer is this: to have a purpose is to solve an important problem. If you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you should pick a problem to solve. Delivering clean water to subsaharan Africa, establishing gender equality in the UK or protecting the world from the potential threat of an AI superintelligence that destroys mankind. All of these are good examples of a purpose problem.
For best results, the problem you pick should be big, it should be solvable in principle, and, ideally, it should be one that isn’t being addressed sufficiently by other people and organisations already.
Once you have picked a problem, you must decide how you will solve it. The good thing about really big problems is that there are lots of things you can do to have an impact. So, you could become a computer programmer, a writer or a great entrepreneur. Sure, if you want to cure cancer then a medical degree might be a requirement to have a direct impact, but it’s certainly not the only way to contribute. In addition, by identifying your purpose, you’ll have a better way of working out which skills you next need to develop or improve next.
Your purpose can change (despite what people say) because you can choose to work on a new problem. Obviously your chances of making progress to solving the problem are likely to be slim if you change direction every six months. But also, we shouldn't pretend that people don't change and grow over time. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. It only matters that you choose an important problem and get to work, not that you are certain it is exactly the right one for you. Most likely when you get stuck in, and your rare and valuable skills come into play, you will identify specific parts of the problem which seem to have been perfectly designed for you.
The upshot of all this is that, contrary to popular belief, the first step to a fulfilling career is not answering the question "What are you passionate about?" That question gets the whole thing back to front and upside down. Don't worry about passion because the passion will come later. The most important question in the universe for any person to answer is this: What big, important problem will you solve?
Too Long; Didn't Read - A Summary
A fulfilling career requires three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. To have mastery and autonomy you must focus on developing a set of expert skills that are rare and valuable. Which skills should you choose to master? The ones that will give you the best chance of fulfilling your purpose. And if you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you must pick a big, important, but solvable problem.
Pick the problem, identify the skills, become a master, receive autonomy. And live happily ever after.
That is why the most important question in the universe is this:
What big, important problem will you solve?
Why is the world the way it is today? Why does America dominate the international political landscape, and not, say, Tanzania? Why did Christianity become the most popular religion in the world and not Buddhism? For all of human history we have attempted to keep a record of the events of our past, but we are also constantly attempting to explain why things turned out in just the way that they did.
In the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle proposed a theory claiming, as the quote above suggests, that it is the actions of a handful of 'great men' throughout history who have determined how things ended up. They were born possessing certain traits that allowed them rise above their fellows and become great leaders. This enabled them to become the notable leaders, thinkers and explorers whose lives and decisions have had an enormous and lasting impact on the world that changed the course of history.
On this view, the outcome of the second world war could be explained by the fact that Churchill was an inspiring speech writer, a savvy politician and a brilliant tactician. His wisdom and intelligence allowed him to see further and more clearly than his contemporaries. His sheer force of will enabled him to drive forward the Allied cause and secure victory in Europe. Or so the argument might go.
These days, the Great Man Theory of history is not taken very seriously by professional historians. There is a greater recognition that all men (and women) are the product of the societies and circumstances they were born in to. It may be true that Churchill was a great man, and a great leader, but he was not inherently so. There is no reason to believe that he was born with gifts and talents that made his rise to prominence inevitable.
Plus, history is simply a lot more messy than Carlyle believed. There were hundreds of factors that were all outside of any one person's control, but which are no less important to determining the outcome. For instance developments in technology (e.g. Radar, the Atom Bomb), economic power (e.g. America joining the war) and natural factors (e.g. Russian winters) are all vital parts of the story to explaining what happened.
To say that history is mostly shaped and explained by individual people is to miss huge parts of the puzzle. There is no doubt that great leaders have existed throughout history, but they can only act in the world as they find it and take opportunities as they appear - neither of which are something any one person can control.
The Great Man Theory of Entrepreneurship
It is quite easy to make a similar mistake when it comes thinking about the success of companies. Why is Apple the most valuable company in the world?
If you believed in a 'Great Man Theory of Entrepreneurship', you would believe that it is almost entirely due to the Great Men who were involved - Steve Jobs and so on. On this view, successful companies become successful because they are started by notable individuals who were born with the natural talents and brilliant minds that inevitably bring great success.
They work harder, think more creatively and take more crazy risks than your average joe. They probably flirt with the grey areas of the law, and generally aren't afraid to do whatever it takes to succeed. This is the stereotype of an entrepreneur that many people still take for granted.
Of course, just as in history, the Great Man theory of entrepreneurship is not true.
To be clear, denying the Great Man Theory does not mean claiming that there have been no great historical leaders, or that these people don't deserve credit for the roles they played. Jobs was a great leader and Apple simply would not have become the success it was without him. But he was only one factor among many, and we should be careful not to explain Apple's success simply by pointing at Steve Jobs and saying, "There you have it!"
Consider some of the things that had to be the case in order for Apple to now be the most valuable company in the world:
- Microsoft wins the PC wars and Apple nearly goes bankrupt. Without the competition of desktop computers to focus their attention, Apple and Jobs were free to innovate with the iPhone which is arguably the most influential and profitable product of all time. Microsoft, on the other hand, is barely making an impact in the smartphone market today.
- Steve Jobs was born in the geographical region that would shortly afterwards become the global epicentre of a technology revolution. If Silicon Valley was based in New York, or a suburb of Moscow, does Steve Jobs' Apple become the most valuable company in the world? There is a whole book's worth of factors to explain why San Francisco became the most famous tech hub in the world.
- Around the time that the iPod was first launched, music labels were so terrified of online music piracy that they agreed to massive concessions during the negotiations to have music in the iTunes store.
The world is a complex place, and everyone is born into a certain situation and is given opportunities they can't control. A great leader seizes those opportunities when they can, and works hard to achieve their goals, but it is clearly wrong to believe in a 'Great Man Theory'. He was just one factor in an extremely complex cocktail.
Suppose you intended to start a company that would sell to Amazon for just under $1 Billion. How would you go about starting things off?
In 2007 one man decided to broadcast a live stream of his life over the internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This service was called Justin.tv and it was certainly a strange project - even more so considering this was ten years ago and the technology was only just becoming available. Now, there's surely no way he could know that his company would end up selling to Amazon, but if he hadn't got started anyway, Twitch TV would not today be one of the biggest sites on the internet, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In fact, Justin.tv itself was not a successful business, and a relative failure as a project. It was not until they launched an off shoot service of Justin.tv which focussed on people broadcasting themselves playing video games that the website caught on in a big way and Twitch.tv was born. In retrospect, the mistakes are obvious and perhaps the founders should have seen them coming. But we should be careful not to give hindsight too much credit, because when you're trying to do something brand new there is no play book or example to follow.
This general story is told over and over in the world of start ups, and what has become clear is that the prize is won by those who get started, not those who wait until they've got the perfect idea. There is a similarity between starting a startup and developing a scientific theory.
Often, the only thing you can know for certain is that you're wrong in some way. It's only once you put something out there that you can decide whether the theory is true.
I've been trying to get into blogging for a very long time. I remember first setting up a Wordpress account when I was around 17 years old, and I could hardly wait to build up my millions of followers. Of course, I spent maybe two weeks picking the perfect design template, and another week deciding which font was exactly right for me. The first post was a bit tougher to make than I had anticipated, and I promptly forgot all about it.
So much for my mega blog and millions of fans.
Since then, I think I tried three more attempts to become a blogger, but still they never lasted more than 5 posts, or 6 months of attention. Well I'm proud to say that in 2015 I created this blog that is still alive today - that's a personal record! Unfortunately my posting frequency remains fairly dismal.
It has been 10 years (oh my god) since my first attempt, so my goal in 2017 is to write a blog post every day.
Why write every day?
There are three main reasons.
- Practice makes
Becoming a great writer is amongst the most valuable skills you can develop, but you don't reap the benefits without a huge amount of practice. Too often we allow perfect to be the enemy of 'good enough', and so hold off from just getting on with it. That's a mistake. Perfection is impossible, but great writers write even when they don't feel like it.
- If you can't explain an idea clearly then you don't really understand it.
We are all of us learning new things every day, but how to ensure that what you learn today is remember tomorrow? Or in a year? The way to ensure that you have truly understood an idea, concept or theory is to explain it in your own words to someone else. Writing every day will allow me to solidify the lessons I learn.
- Clarify your opinions.
Being forced to think of something to write about helps to clarify your own opinions. As Leo Babauta has written on the Zen Habits blog: "Thoughts and feelings are nebulous happenings in our mind holes, but writing forces us to crystalize those thoughts and put them in a logical order."
I will mainly be writing about startups, entrepreneurship, philosophy and psychology. If those topics interest you, it would be wonderful to have you stay in touch.
To do that, you can either like The Game Of Few on Facebook, or join my email list below.
A story was featured in the New York Times recently about B.J. Miller, a doctor specialising in end of life care, who also happens to be a triple amputee. It's about the hospice he set up in California that takes an unconventional approach to looking after the dying.
The majority of the piece is about Randy Sloan, a guy in his 20s with a rare form of cancer, and how his final days are spent. This quote in particular stood out to me:
It's an emotional read, but well worth the time. Check it out:
What does it take to become known as a great theorist / writer / thinker? As the quote above suggests, it's not simply whether you come up with theories that are true - they also have to be interesting. That's not to say that your theories should be untrue, only that truth alone is not enough to make people think of you as one of the greats.
So what is it that makes a theory interesting?
In 1971, the sociologist Murray Davis wrote a paper to try and answer this question. In general terms, he finds that, "A new theory will be noticed only when it denies an old truth, proverb, platitude, maxim, adage, saying, commonplace, etc."
He adds, "All interesting theories, at least all interesting social theories, then, constitute an attack on the taken-for-granted world of their audience. … If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, [the audience] will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth."
In other words, an audience finds a theory interesting when it identifies some part of their world view that they have assumed to be true and shows it to be false. If a theory confirms what they already thought to be true, then they will agree it is true, but reject the value of the theory. For example:
- Darwin's theory of evolution is interesting because it takes what looks like a perfectly designed natural world and reveals that it is in fact the result of chaos and survival of the fittest.
- Google's research has revealed that to build a high performing team, the only requirement is that there is psychological safety. This contradicts many people's assumptions that, for example, high performing teams require a team of experts, or a strong leader, etc.
However, you must also be careful not to go too far, or to challenge beliefs that are held too strongly by your audience. As Davis points out, "There is a fine but definite line between asserting the surprising and asserting the shocking, between the interesting and the absurd. An interesting proposition [is] one which denies[s] the weakly held assumptions of its audience. But those who attempt to deny the strong held assumptions of their audience will have their very sanity called into question. They will be accused of being lunatics; if scientists, they will be called 'crackpots'. If the difference between the inspired and the insane is only in the degree of tenacity of the particular audience assumptions they choose to attack, it is perhaps for this reason that genius has always been considered close to madness."
As many awkward dinner conversations have revealed, there is a thin line between interesting challenges to your assumptions and offensive attacks on your deepest held beliefs. Try if you can to stay on the right side of that line.
Another possible challenge for society in general is that we're often in danger of looking only at what's interesting, and not making sure that theories are actually true. Surely everyone has experienced hearing about some idea or explanation for a phenomenon which is really fascinating, only to find out later that it isn't true. For me this was the notion that humans only use 10% of our brains, a frequently repeated, but utterly incorrect claim. Even today it's repeated all over the place, and I think it has stuck around precisely because it really is an interesting idea! When you first hear the claim that we only use 10% of our brains, it's completely surprising because of course we assumed that we used all of our brains.
There must still be thousands of people around the world who believe this claim now, so there's almost no hope of correcting everyone. The claim is interesting enough (and minimally plausible) that it doesn't really matter that it's not true. My concern is that this happens more often than we think.
Interesting Start Ups and Boring Business
I think this general outline applies equally well to start ups. What does it take to be a great start up? It's not enough that it should make money, that goes without saying (or it should do). It also has to be interesting. And an interesting start up is much like an interesting theory or idea.
Sometimes the key to being seen as a great start up is that it challenges an assumption your customers thought was true. The examples of upended assumptions include:
- People will never want to stay in a random strangers house that they found on the internet. (Airbnb)
- Normal people won't offer to drive strangers around in their own cars. (Uber)
- Buying books over the internet will never catch on. (Amazon)
- No one will use a service if you can only use 140 characters. (Twitter).
The list goes on.
If you want to build a startup that generates the near mythical status of Uber / Amazon / Twitter / etc, then you can't just be a good business, you also have to challenge an assumption your audience always thought was true.
Having said all that, I think the same problem can apply to start ups as applies to theories. Sometimes we're at risk of only looking at whether a start up is interesting, and not whether it's true (i.e. makes money, is a good business, etc). Theranos, infamously raised millions of dollars of investment money on the claim that they had invented a way to test blood samples that was insanely more efficient than previously, using a method that was judged by the experts to be impossible. Again, a very interesting start up! So interesting that they didn't really check that it's claims were true.
A lesson for us all that we shouldn't let interesting over shadow what's true.
Be wary of becoming a specialist, whether it's in your career or in your personal life. Certainly expert knowledge and being highly skilled are good things, but being a specialist has its downsides too.
The Curse of Knowledge
One big problem from becoming a specialist is that it, ironically, can make it harder for you to find innovative solutions and share the knowledge that you've spent so much time specialising in. The more you know, the harder it is to approach the problem with a fresh perspective. The more likely you are to accept certain starting assumptions as necessarily true.
Thinking laterally and 'outside the box' requires that you are able to take ideas and theories from one setting and combine them in a new way in another setting. As Charles Duhigg points out in Smarter, Faster, Better, "if you consider some of the biggest intellectual innovations of the past half century, you can see you this dynamic at work. The field of behavioural economics … emerged in the mid 1970s and 80s when economists began applying long held principles from psychology to economics, and asking questions like why perfectly sensible people bought lottery tickets."
Perhaps this problem for specialists is also related to the findings of Professor Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting, whose research has revealed that specialists are bad at making predictions about the future. As he puts it, "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing."
Tetlock found that foxes tend to make better, more accurate predictions about the future because they are more able to see the bigger picture and apply many different lenses to the same set of facts. But what's even worse is that specialists also tend to be far more confident in their opinion or prediction, even though they make worse predictions than knowledgable non-specialists!
Of course, this isn't an argument for ignorance or refusing to go deep on a topic. It's an argument for keeping in mind breadth as well as depth. As the quote at the top of the page suggests, insects may be highly specialised to their specific place in nature, but you are not an insect. Nature has a nasty habit of testing the limits of living things, and the theory of evolution tells us that only those who can adapt will survive. When you're hit with an unknown unknown, it will benefit you to be a fox and not a hedgehog.
For the last few years, I've made a conscious effort to read more books. Whenever I come across an interesting book that I think I could learn from, I add it to my Amazon wish list and eventually it finds it's way onto my bookshelf. But spending more time reading isn't worth it if you're not ensuring that the lessons are learnt and knowledge is effectively stored. When you comes across a section of a book that really stands out, how do you make sure that you've not forgotten about it by the following week?
The system I use is based on the one used by writer Ryan Holiday which he calls his 'Commonplace Book'. Here's how it works:
Step 1. Mark notable passages as you go.
As you read through a book, when a sentence, idea or paragraph strikes you as important then you need to mark it in some way. Ryan says that he folds down the corner of the page, but I like to use sticky tabs. (See the photo below).
The things you mark could be a great quote, a controversial argument or just something that feels significant to you. There is no right or wrong criteria, and most likely your approach will evolve over time. I have found that just the process of marking the important sections makes me more conscious of what I'm reading and helps me to recall the main arguments later on.
Step 2. Finish the book and leave it alone for a while.
Once you have finished the book, put it back on the shelf for a while and allow yourself time to mull it over.
Over the next week or so, you may find that some sections stood out to you more than others. Or you remember feeling really strongly about a story towards the beginning of the book, but the details haven't stood out. It's not so important that you come up with any particular thoughts about the book, just that you leave it alone for a while so that step three is more useful.
Step 3. Go back through the passages you marked as important on the first read through and decide whether they are still important. If they are, copy them over to your 'commonplace book'.
This is the most important step of the process. What Ryan calls 'Your Commonplace Book' is simply a central place where you can store all of the quotes, comments, phrases, arguments or ideas that you come across.
Ryan copies out each passage by hand on to individual cards and then stores them all in boxes. That seemed like a lot of hard work when I first started this so I use Evernote instead. The process of copying out the important sections allows you to review the key arguments/ideas in the book which makes you more likely to remember them long term.
Using Evernote, I collect all of the marked passages from one into a single note which means that if I ever need to quickly refresh my memory on a topic I can just look through the relevant note. I add tags to that note about what topics are covered, and Evernote's powerful search functionality makes things even easier. Say, for example, I am thinking about how to make an important decision, I can search for 'decision making' in my Evernote Commonplace Book and see all of the notes from any book I've read in the last 4 years which might have something to offer.
Step 4. Keep doing this for a long time.
This is one of those things that I'm really grateful I started several years ago. Since I've read a lot of books over those years, I now have a fantastic record of what all those books were, and what I found more important about each one. It's easy to dedicate more time reading valuable books when you can see that you're building such an incredible resource and you know that the effort won't be wasted by forgetting the whole thing.
Of course your commonplace book is not just for book excerpts. You can include things you hear in conversation, summaries of podcasts that resonated, even pictures or videos if you like. Let your commonplace become your external brain. The more you use it, the more valuable a resource it becomes.