Interview: Using books to navigate life with Juvoni Beckford

A few months ago, a tweet popped up on my timeline, where Juvoni Beckford shared an incredible achievement: reading 450 books over the course of a decade. As someone who loves reading and thinks that everyone would benefit from reading more books—whether fiction or nonfiction—I was understandably impressed by Juvoni’s consistency.

Juvoni Beckford is a Software Engineer at Google. He has read books about anything from psychology, philosophy, personal development, business, science, economics, history, sociology, communication, technology, politics, as well as many biographies and fiction books. He considers himself a lifelong learner, with a keen interest for system thinking, habit building, and productivity methods.

In this interview, we talked about collecting life skills through books, selecting the best books to read, navigating your inner world, using the real world as a spaced repetition system, creating a meaningful highlighting system, the dangers of working in public, making space for serendipity, and much more. Enjoy the read!

Hey Juvoni! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I reached out when I saw you have read more than 450 books, which is impressive. When did you start reading so much? Was there a specific goal?

I actually used to despise reading. I hated reading for much of my childhood. Every time I would get in trouble, it would always be: “Go turn off the TV and go read books.” Anytime we got in trouble at school, it was: “Now you have to read 50 more pages.” And then, for summer reading, we got the most boring, unrelatable books. So I spent much of my life avoiding books.

I think two things helped change my mindset towards reading. The first was cartoons, and specifically X-Men and other shows where people are able to collect multiple abilities. With my friends, we would always get into these conversations about who’s the most super powered mutant. And they would choose professor Xavier, or Wolverine, or someone else. But there was one mutant in particular, called Rogue, who was so powerful that the show actually had to take away some of her powers. Because if she touched you, she could temporarily take away your abilities and memories. Her abilities were essentially limitless.

That’s when something clicked in my mind: I found myself reading a book and being able to do things that I wasn’t able to do before. And I asked myself: what happens if I read two books, or three books? I can start collecting these different perspectives about how the world works, these different abilities. That was a huge mental shift for me.

The other thing was that I grew up in the Bronx, where I didn’t have much resources. My mom was my biggest inspiration and influence, and I learned a lot about my values through her. But books were a way for me to learn from the past, to have mentors who had lived hundreds of years ago. And for a kid who didn’t have a father figure, nor much role models, books were a way to get some guidance. I was in a maze, and books were my way out.

Talking about mentors, is that how you go about picking books? Do you choose a mentor you want to learn from, or do you decide based on a particular topic of interest?

I read very broadly. If you look on my book list, there is no limitation towards what themes I’ll read about. I could read about cheerleading if it’s relevant to what I’m trying to do. There are no boundaries.

I try to avoid bestsellers, books that people widely recommend, or books with a big marketing promotion. I’ll usually try to delay and wait a little bit. I prefer to read books that are older, that are more time-tested. You mentioned you got an older book recently and I thought: that’s precious. I can imagine blowing the dust off of it. I love that feeling of ancient wisdom.

My inner child is probably still going well, because I treat reading books like collecting spells. If there is a certain obstacle that I face and I don’t yet have the right spell to cast, to either break a curse or to build a bridge, I will try to find a book that can help me.

Part of it is me trying to navigate the external world, and the other side of it is me trying to navigate my internal world. That’s how I view fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction is really good to help you navigate the mental models of the physical world, so you can understand how the world works, how to gain tactics and strategies to shape things in the real world.

But you also have your inner world, which is your actual reality, as consciousness is an illusion that we all buy into on an individual level and on a collective level. Fiction can unlock these internal mental models within you. And it can unlock all sorts of visions for what’s possible in the world. Similar to the hero’s journey, it’s about finding your way to some promised land and making your way back home.

Books offer a massive playground for the infinite game of collecting spells, leveling up, starting new adventures. It’s something that makes me feel alive, that allows me to live more deeply.

I love that. Just to dig a bit deeper into the metaphor of collecting spells… It made me think about video games, where there are only that many potions or weapons you can carry in your bag. If you find a new item, you have to make room for it. It’s a bit similar with our memory, right? You can’t hold everything into your mind at the same time. And you’ve been collecting so many “spells” over the years, so I’m wondering: how do you manage these spells? How do you make sure you can reach for them whenever you need them?

To me, the key has been to read books that are necessary on an emotional level, books to make progress when the stakes are high in my life. When I was negotiating my rent, here in New York, I read Never Split the Difference. There was a very strong need to negotiate, to understand how I could create a win-win situation, and to frame our mutual best interests with the landlord. So when I read that book, I had the emotional rush of winning the negotiation, and I will remember that book by tapping into my emotions to hold the context.

Knowledge can bring about real world change. That’s why I try to focus  on the emotions. I have gone through this self-discovery journey through my life, first with a stoic phase, then a hyper rational phase, and now more of a post-rationalist phase. I’m now bringing everything together and trying to find where everything fits in.

I do take a lot of notes, but in general, I try not to over-focus on it while reading. I use the real world as a proof of memory or a proof of work. Putting the knowledge into the real world through action or conversation, that’s what helps it to stick the most, because I’m creating an external spaced repetition system. When I have conversations with friends, I’ll tell them about a book. And then two years later, they’ll be like: “Oh yeah, I remember when you talked about this!” — I may have forgotten myself, but they just reminded me of what I told them about.

I’m fascinated by time and time perspectives. There’s this great book called The Time Paradox, which talks about cultural differences in perceiving time, as well as how different emotional states impact our perception of time, and how emotions are time-based. So you can give nuggets of wisdom to people, and as they orbit your life and eventually your paths cross again, they will give you back the knowledge you gifted them in the past.

So that’s another way that I try to remember. It may not sound like the typical process of putting all my notes in Evernote. Instead, it’s trying to get as close to real life as possible, as connected to people as possible, and making the knowledge come to life. Eventually, it will find its way back to you.

It’s like real-world spaced repetition. This is amazing. At first, when I saw that you read more than 450 books, I thought: he must have a system to manage to be this consistent. But, from what you’re telling me here, it sounds like you choose books on a need-to-know basis, where there’s a specific challenge and you need to cast a specific spell.

There is definitely a need for structure and systems. I live a very system-oriented life. I remember crossing one of your tweets about consistency, and I had some mixed thoughts based on my personal life experience.

It relates to how I can read so many books. My mind is that kind of chaotic nuclear reactor. I have to put the right stabilizing rods in place and have the right cooling systems and energy routing systems to make productive use of it. Pretty much like my mind, life is just chaos that I’m constantly trying to bring order to. And I found consistency to be absolutely key. If I were to only do one thing that is deeply natural and intuitive to me, then I wouldn’t need as many systems and discipline and willpower to be consistent.

When I try to understand a person’s human nature, I try to guess which one of the seven deadly sins they fit in. I think my particular sin is greed, but not material greed. It’s greed for knowledge and skills. I want to acquire all these abilities. I want to acquire all this knowledge. I want to acquire all these relationships. I don’t want to own them, I just want to have them orbiting me like satellites. I want them within my gravitational field.

And when it comes to having that many things orbiting around you, you need a bit of mass to pull everything in. That’s why I have very structured habits making systems. I use a lot of habit tracking. I’m very big into the quantified self, data, and measurements, and I have strict systems around how I go about picking the books that I read.

I have a system called the book purgatory system, which is where books go to await judgment day. Can you tell I’m very big into metaphors? I often think in pure metaphorical terms. There is this other book I enjoyed called Metaphors We Live By that talks about that. Anyway, I have my book purgatory system, where I actually avoid five star reviews. I try to focus on the very passionate three and four star reviews. I try to avoid one and two star reviews because usually it’s very low information. So I try to find the middle spot.

I use a task management list to manage the books that I want to read. I do this because I don’t want to populate my Goodreads with too much noise. My Goodreads only contains books that I physically own. That’s been like the key to making it akin to a real library. It’s my virtual library of books that I own. And my task management list  is the curation system for the book purgatory.

Then, I have my own highlighting system. It’s a color-coded system in which I flag books by primary colors with post-it notes. There’s blue, red, green, yellow, and orange. Each of those colors I’ll use to flag certain sections in a book. I call it the BAGEL method. It starts B which B stands for Big Idea. I use the blue flag for anything that’s like a big idea, things that summarize the chapter or the book. Then there’s the red flag, which I actually think is the most important. A stands for Antagonism. That’s something that is causing a cognitive dissonance or confusion, or some sort of friction in your mind. So if you read something and you feel like you don’t agree, you use the red flag. Keeping track of everything that confuses you can change your worldview, when you thought the world would work one way and it actually works in another way. The G, which uses the yellow flag, is for General Idea. I use it to flag a main idea within a chapter. The E is for External Reference, and that’s going to be the orange flag. You can flag any sort of research that’s referred to, so you can look into it later. Finally, the L is for Lists, when the author goes through several supporting points. The green flag actually came about because I kept on running out of the yellow flags, so I needed a way to flag parts where a lot of points were coming up.

The BAGEL method is basically a non-destructive progressive summarization method, because you’re not highlighting, you’re not writing in the margins. You can read all the blue flags to get all the big ideas. You can read all the yellow flags for a particular chapter, which should summarize all the general ideas that are compressed into the blue flag of that chapter. You can read all the red flags to work on your inner world and see where the author is pushing the boundaries of your worldview.

If you read a book and there are very little red flags, then there’s no real reason to keep on reading the book. If you understand everything, why are you reading the book? Similarly, orange flags for external references tell you: is the author basing their work on deeper research?

You can also trace those external references to find better books to read. It’s also a good place to flag specific graphs or footnotes that reference other books. Then, the supporting points or the green flag is a good place to slow down. Thanks to this method, I have hundreds of books with these flags in my library. I haven’t even like typed them up into Evernote.

Some people may just have like these yellow highlighters or yellow post-it flags, but there’s no inherent meaning baked into their system. So that’s why they rely so much on having to remember things. With the BAGEL method, I don’t have to worry I will forget the meaning of a flag. The meaning is baked into the color system. It’s a functionally cohesive system that allows you to put down all the flags that you need to navigate the book, focused on meaning and knowledge.

This is amazing. I often corner the bottom of a page when reading a physical book, if there’s something interesting there. But if I don’t put it in my note-taking system, the context is lost for the next time I pick up the book. To me, having a note-taking system is about creating a dialogue between the authors I read. How do you connect ideas across books?

I did start to migrate some of my preliminary notes. At least the title, and I’m now migrating the table of contents all into Roam Research. I kind of want it to be patient, because if you don’t have all the prerequisites or experience or insights when reading a book, you may not actually be able to get what the author is trying to communicate.

Because I’ve been doing the system for eight to ten years now, my reading pace even changed significantly. I think the first year I read eight books. Then ten, then twelve, then thirty, then sixty. My reading pace was going up. Today it’s around the forty range, just because life and the pandemic has obliterated my ability to focus. But I know it will go back up.

The person I was who read ten books is a little bit different than the person who read fifty books and the person who read a hundred books. I basically have allowed this density to build up. I’ve been accumulating all this energy and potential energy for so many years. It’s like a spirit bomb that’s about to go off once my writing flow really kicks in. Then I can leverage the insights through all these books that have passed through me, such as how I go about writing the summaries, how I go about writing essays, how I go about doing synoptic reading that connects different ideas.

I think I’m glad I took that approach as opposed to working in public. I think on the long-term. Three, five, ten years is when I’m really letting something cook. And I started from a young age, so I’m still relatively young. I still have a lot more time to reinvest into these things. With working in public, the feedback loop to the external world is so fast that it can change your priorities, because you’re optimizing towards what the audience wants and what the audience resonates with. Because I was in lurk ghost mode for eight to ten years, I was able to do the hard work that was thankless. No validation, just in the dungeon, just doing the work. I have given myself time to incubate those ideas and to develop maturity and discipline. And now I can share some of what I learned with the world.

This is something I often think about because I work in public. And sometimes I ask myself: do I really want to write about this, or is it because this is what people expect? It’s a constant effort to balance what I’m curious about with what people want. But I don’t think I’d be able to write this consistently if I wasn’t driven by intellectual curiosity.

Yes. I think a lot about life in cycles. It’s hard to force consistencies against our natural cycles. For me, I want to be in a position where I can blend deep work with what Venkatesh would call the hive mind of Twitter. I don’t want to be plugged too much into the hive mind because I would lose myself, but there’s so much value in just the creative chaos and interestingness that happens there. So I will probably have a cycle, like a pendulum that swings back and forth, from chaos to some more like order. I’ll probably take a seasonal approach where I’ll have a heavily produced series I worked on for three months, and then drop it and drip it out for three months. And then I can have an off season where you don’t hear from me.

I also have this process called a personal annual review, where every year I review what went well, what didn’t go well, what I want to reduce. I ask myself: what do I want to work towards? I’ve been doing that for the last six years. This year, I’m also going to do a decade in review. Through all this introspection and self-awareness, I’ve been able to become predictable to myself, which is very helpful in projecting out my future decisions. Like, what would Giovanni do in this situation?

I’m so glad you mentioned this, because one of the questions I wanted to ask you after everything we talked about was about how you seem to be a system thinker. What space do you leave for serendipity in your life and work?

I think about chaos as in internal chaos versus external chaos. I do very well with external chaos. But internal chaos is like very wobbly woozy for me. That’s why I have a lot of systems for my internal world, so I can expose myself to chaos. For example, I noticed that we both went to Burning Man…

Oh, you did? My parents got married there a few years ago.

Yes, I think I saw it. I actually run a very large Burning Man camp.

That’s awesome. Ha, I miss it. Anyway, keep going. Sorry. 

So what I do is I take the barbell approach to serendipity. I don’t want to expose myself to serendipity all the time, because I have a fox-like archetype, as opposed to the hedgehog-like archetype. I’m naturally a very intense person. So when it comes to serendipity, I try to have predictability most of the time, like 80% of the time. I never get there, but it’s the aspiration. And then 20% is just wild, complete wallop. So I tend to do things that are wildly out of my comfort zone in very constrained buckets of time.

That’s another thing with time dilation. Certain experiences make it feel like five or ten years have passed. So you can experience a lot in a very short time span. That’s why I balance serendipity with this barbell approach and these cycles while. You want to pace yourself, because with constant intensity you’re going to get deeply unsatisfied and want more and more extreme experiences. So I pace out the extremes.

If everything was orderly and predictable, it would not be good for the spirit. I actually love surprises, because they challenge me at an intellectual level. I love to plan and have all my plans get thrown out, especially at Burning Man. I love when life takes you on this adventure and you’re along for the ride. You just have to accept it, let go, and see what happens. That’s what makes life interesting and worth living.

This is a beautiful conclusion. Thanks so much, Juvoni!

Want to follow Juvoni’s journey? Follow him on Twitter.

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