Never back down from a mental challenge again.


So, you’ve found a nice, comfortable place to read. Peaceful and quiet, you settle down to dig into that new book everyone has been raving about all year. Seconds tick away as the worries of life fade into the shadows. 

There’s nothing coming in between you and that soft-covered bundle of enlightenment now.

Word after word, your mind is stimulated by the eloquence flowing from those cream-colored pages.

“This is better than any book I’ve ever read,” you admit.

After a while, you find yourself edging closer and closer to the end of the first chapter. But you didn’t know it. The sentences your eyes discovered were so beyond your wildest dreams that Hawaii — as impressive as it is — just seemed like the park across the street.

There’s just one problem:

You didn’t understand anything you’d been reading.

It looked good, though.

Like one of those classic novels with syntax so pleasing to the eye (yet so daunting to the brain) it almost made you want to cry. Nothing was clear to you. Nothing presented itself in a way that was easy to understand.

It was all just visually stimulating.

So where do you go from here?

You’re Not the Only One

First, you should know that even the most brilliant minds don’t understand everything they read. I don’t care what anyone says, there are subjects and issues that are perplexing to some and simple to others. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth looking over.

In fact, there are a ton of pros associated with analyzing unfamiliar topics. An obvious one would be learning something new, something you had no knowledge of beforehand.

This is because the human brain is an astonishing thing — often more extraordinary than we assume it to be. Assembled into a cluster of unprecedented storage capacity, it leaves room for the kind of explorations that lay available to anyone.

Of course, it can be a bit risky. Just like cliff-jumping into an open body of water, it takes courage to partake in such adventurous activities. Sure, you could successfully complete a spinning backflip while your friends cheer you on. But there’s always a chance of slipping on that loose rock on the edge.

Examining this, I asked myself, “What would I do if I was the person who slipped on that loose rock on the edge, ruining my chances of landing that backflip?”

I would get out of the water and try again.

I would climb back to the top, locate that loose rock, and make sure not to step on it next time. But I would not back down from the challenge.

The same is true for reading.

Starting from the Top

To finish a chapter without having the fireworks of comprehension go off in our heads, we have to start over. 

We have to begin again.

It may not be from the very beginning of a book, an article, or whatever piece of text that’s confusing us. But it must be where we wandered off, where our minds drifted away into no man’s land.

As a youngster, I always assumed something was wrong with me because I couldn’t grasp things as quick as most people. The all-too-easy portion of a novel everyone else picked up on left me disoriented. I even started questioning my intelligence altogether.

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

Rooms would fill with a subtle sense of “Ah ha,” while my brain was on an island of uncertainty. None of it made sense to me.

That is until I developed the comprehension “trick” that changed the way I understood what passed through my eyes and surfaced in my head. From that point on, if there was anything I couldn’t quite hang my hat on, I would take a look at it again. Rolling up my sleeves, I was prepared to get dirty; because I knew there was more to be discovered.

“You can reread not from love or hatred but from a sense, often inchoate, that there’s more to this book than you have been yet able to receive.”

—Alan Jacobs

To my surprise, I gained at least one new nugget of information each time. And every nugget completed the 6-, 10-, or 20-piece combo the authors were presenting to their readers.

I mean, what’s the point of reading a book each week — adding to your aesthetically pleasing bookshelf and crossing off a to-do list complete with chapters in chronological order — if you aren’t going to gather anything useful from them?

Yes, it does sound tedious and cumbersome, but it works.

Perhaps there was a piece of the story that you missed, a chunk of context that connects with the rest of the puzzle. Maybe there was a hint in the text that provided insight into what the writer was intending to show you.

You’ll never know unless you accept the challenge. And this goes for anything.

Did that memo seem a little confusing? Read it again.

Are those instructions for that project a bit complicated? Read them again.

You’re not perfect, so take the necessary steps to gain the best level of understanding out of what you read. Something as simple as re-reading a text could be the difference between chronically slipping on the slick rocks of confusion and nailing that spinning backflip of comprehension.

Don’t rush the adventure. Everything may not be detected the first time around. Sometimes, you just have to start from the top.


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