How I became a Speed Reader

I wish the reason I became a speed reader was something epic. It would be so amazing, if at birth or in my early years someone thought, wow, this girl is totally special. The truth is, I did it out of fear.

The hedge fund business is crazy. I’d worked my tail off to try to get one of these covetted competitive jobs. And while I suppose in hindsight, the hard work I’d put in should have been enough to make me feel confident, the fact is, I wasn’t. Everyone around me seemed brilliant, with perfect resumes, perfect parents. Heck, at this firm, they even had perfect skin, symmetric faces, and a great wardrobe. It was intimidating.

I most know most people don’t respect hedge fund people. Yes, a lot of them are just lucky to have been born with a silver spoon. And for sure, a lot of that money they managed belonged to over-privileged rich people. But among those that fit the absolute worst stereotypes, you’ll also find true gems.

We have this term in financial services called “fiduciary duty.” It’s the idea that the money that is entrusted with you must be treated like a prized possession. You will not only do no harm, but you will act with extreme responsibility as a true expert and professional. Those I worked with took this idea very seriously.

This fund had been in business for a long time and had become trusted by some of the largest Pension Funds. This is the greatest achievement for a Hedge Fund. It is a seal of approval that even those blue collar workers, the individuals that most likely to hate your guts, trust you with their money. Unlike those sitting around me, this always hit home. These were people I grew-up with from my small-town-trailer-park-barely-pay-for-next-month’s-rent beginnings.

It was in this environment that I acquired the skill of speed reading. My role was to hedge the portfolio and I was working just before the mortgage market crisis of 2007/8. While anyone can tell you how to make money in an up market, few can help you know what to do during a liquidity crisis to protect capital. I started reading feverishly in the hopes that books could tell me what my colleagues could not.

The remember the first time I realized my speed was higher than normal. Harry Potter’s final book had come out on July 23, 2007. I am a MASSIVE Potter fan. I had worked my typical 80 hour week and Sunday was my only day off. I was going to spend it reading this tomb.

I woke up, picked up my pre-ordered copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows around noon from the bookstore and finished it around 7pm. Those were the days when there were actually quite a few bookstores in the City.

For some reason, it didn’t even occur to me that it might be difficult to finish this 759 page book in a single sitting. Given the number of pages, I estimate my speed then was around 1200wpm, about half my current pace. For a book that size, it is still a pretty sizable time commitment. But I remember that once I started there was no chance I was going to sleep until it was done.

Back then, I wasn’t really familiar with what constituted speed reading. All I knew was that I only had the one day to read it. When the markets are in crisis, everyone works late and on the weekends. Everyone in the office saw me leave late on Saturday, after any bookstore would have closed. Our office had an open platform set up. I was coming in at 6:30am and leaving close to 11pm. Between reading white papers, toiling over spreadsheets, a bit of light coding, Sunday was my only shot at getting my Potter fix before everyone was out with spoilers.

It was surprising to others as we all looked up from our monitors for lunch that Monday that I had finished the book on Sunday. It was surprising to me that it was such a surprise. Everyone around me was so well-read. They all went to Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia all the best schools. But they didn’t go for math like me.

They majored in the areas that required reading and extreme thoughtfulness. They came from rich families that had huge libraries in their own home. Heck, half of them had their name on a library somewhere. I felt so insecure in comparison. Reading was my way of playing catch up. It seemed like that was implicitly what people were asking me to do. Literally everyone seemed to have read more. They all seemed to be suggesting books I had never heard of and talking about them with great confidence.

When I had started my job at the hedge fund, I remember I was only reading about 60 pages per hour. There was no end to the constant stacks of recommendations. Without those books, I felt like I was locked out of even being able to have a conversation. I was afraid of sounding dumb with my questions. And I needed that wisdom. The markets were falling and I didn’t have answers.

With each book I read, I was rewarded with a conversation and nuggets wisdom. This may sound like a paltry reward to some. But in 80 hour per week jobs, you come to realize that time is one of the most valuable gifts. You learn not to take someone’s 10 or 20 minutes for granted. You work hard to make sure conversations matter.

In retrospect, some people might have fake read books, instead of doing what I did. I’m more than certain that a lot of people in finance and other fields do just that. It’s understandable. Some industries are full of intellectual snobs.

I’m glad I didn’t. Having become a speed reader, I know when people are lying. I usually don’t care, unless I find them being snobby to others. That said, my bosses have never been fakers. They were true nerds. If ever you meet a true nerd, just admit you don’t know. They tend respect those that admit where their knowledge ends. In contrast, the penalty for faking with true nerds can be high.

A lot of charlatan teachers will tell you that speed reading is about improving long term memory. In fact, I have a terrible long term memory. However, I do have a killer associative memory, i.e the actual portion of memory that is most exercised in reading. In fact, reading will rewire your brain to do this.

It later came to be a fortunate turn of events that I do not trust my memory. Remember, I wasn’t reading to sell a course or pretend I’m smarter than others. Quite the opposite. I was reading to be allowed to learn from others. In those days, I was far less confident. Though I hid it as best I could I got nervous talking to those that were more seasoned and just smarter.

I started to write reviews on all of the books as a way to be able to go back and cite my evidence. I put all of these notes in Livingsocial, which was a lot like Goodreads.com before it pivoted to become a coupon seller. This allowed me a set of notes to review before I nervously would go in and talk to my bosses. It also allowed me to find citations quickly when I felt unsure of myself and my understanding.

In this way, I chanced upon something often missed by the charlatans. Reflection on what you read is actually central to retention. Writing notes is another way of reflecting. Going over your bookmarks after you’ve already finished the book is key. I’m a complete dolt when it comes to memorization. But I can def take notes in a way that I can later reference them.

My life took many turns since 2007. I never stopped reading, though I slowed down the number of books per year after graduate school. I later took a break for 3 years to travel the world. It was during that time that I collaborated to create a speed reading course.

For the first years after the course came out in Dec 2018, I did very little with it other than forwarding the link to random people who found me at Goodreads.com. It seemed that every time someone would find out, I would go through the same series of questions. The free course intro actually answers the most common FAQs.

But while it was good to get the course out of my head to a place others could gain from it, it doesn’t answer my question. It doesn’t respond to the reason I made the course in the first place. Namely, What should I do with this skill, precisely?

Part of the problem is that when people learn I’m a speed reader, the first response is disbelief. I’m not sure why anyone would lie about it, especially with a number as specific as 2400wpm. But it does turn out that quite a lot of people do lie about it. In fact, I met a whole group of them thinking I’d found my tribe. But no… <insert sad face emoji, but on my actual face>. They avoided me like the plague afterward.

While most people I ask are kind and thoughtful listeners, few believed I wasn’t lying about the skill. Others thought I was doing some sort of trick. Those folks I just direct to my Goodreads so they can look at my notes.

The few that do believe me didn’t have an answer. The question was just not something they had believed was possible. After many discussions, I realized that part of the problem is that the world has – for so long – held reading in such high regard, that speed reading is inconceivable. Really, though, it’s like any other skill. Many people use to believe that marathon running was only for people who resembled X-men. Nowadays, a marathon is still a stellar achievement, but it’s understood that it’s attainable for those that put the hard work in.

If I wanted the answers, I was going to have to be more public and show what speed reading looks like. If I was lucky, others might give it a try and those people would have reasons to want to do it!

I truly believe quite a lot of people already are speed readers. For the English, I personally count speed reading at between 400-500wpm (this number is explained in my course). While some may not be able to get to my speed, i.e. 2400 wpm, others will lap me like the thousands of people did when I ran the New York Marathon. I have heard the highest reading speeds are over 4000wpm. Those people are truly special. I’m not them. I’m just someone chanced into it.

I’m not trying to compete in some crazy world competition. And I didn’t take anyone’s course. Even if I did, I don’t think that would have done anymore then reading a book on running will help you become as fast as an olympic marathoner. The only uniqueness about my ability is that I had the misfortune/fortune of 1) being made to feel like I had to do it to keep my job and 2) being too clueless to realize that I’d shot far past a normal reading speed. In fact, if no one had said anything about the Harry Potter book that day, I would still be completely unaware I was reading that much faster than others.

As for the course, I think most speed reading courses are typically somewhere between half truths to bold face lies. The best materials on reading relate to dyslexia and other work done by actual doctors. Problem is most of that research maxes out at competency (150wpm). It’s not trying to get you past 300wpm.

Speed reading is like all other things. There are some specific skills you should know and then you practice. If you use wrong techniques, such as the flashing words technique I recently have seen, you will more likely have an epileptic episode than an improved reading ability. I’ve had people get really mad at me for saying. But truly, they are charlatans and in that regard, I’m glad I made the course (coupon here). Udemy changes policy without notice so Contact me if the link breaks.

I actually don’t care if you take this or any course. If it’s not something you want to do, don’t do it. I’d be just as thrilled if you follow, like, forward, or comment on my Instagram where I post a short vlog on book takeaways. I’d be EVEN more thrilled if you have ideas on my real question: What should I do with this skill?

This is why I started Diary of Speed Reader. If you have some ideas that do not involve helping you cheat in school or otherwise do something negative, message me. They can be for-profit. They can be to help humanity. Diary of a Speed Reader is about crowdsourcing. And I’d love to hear from you.

Sincerely,

May Ling

One comment

  1. Hi there!

    I found your profile while scrolling through reviews on Goodreads, I decided to get a look on your blog then!

    Your reading speed intrigued me and I wanted to know more.. Aside from my ability to read slowly only, we’ve a some things in common (surprisingly!): from our past not growing with a silver spoon, to the travel side and my passion for Finance, to writing summaries on Goodreads to prove the comprehension of books and prove that I read them!

    This article gave me such a realization that fast reading is a real power and something that we all want to achieve without knowing it. It’s exciting as it can help accomplish more in a day.. This is exactly the problem I’ve been facing and my next challenge to overcome.. As a non native English speaker, I try my best to get to 400 wpm but struggle to get close to that yet.

    Thanks for this article and keep on going, I will check your Udemy course 😉

    Bye!
    Leo D

    Like

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