The number of books you’ve read is meaningless — but you should track it obsessively

In high school I spent all my time online. For a while I was obsessed with building something called an ESPN.com profile. This was in the web’s Wild West days, so restrictions were lax: they let you use any HTML you wanted; you could even embed Flash graphics. It was like my own Internet shrine.

This was way better than any normal homepage. Because it was on ESPN, people could actually see it! The best part of the profile was the “visitor count” that would go up every time you got a hit from another ESPN member.

I spent hours trying to get that number to go up. And whenever it did, I’d head outside (finally!) and take a nice walk around the neighborhood to bask in my own greatness.

Eventually ESPN killed their profiles. All that hard work, and my precious visitor count, cast out into the void of cyberspace. It had all been for nothing.

At least, that’s what I thought. But I was completely wrong.

Maybe the visitor count was just an ego thing. But to get visitors, I had to put cool stuff on my profile. And to put cool stuff on my profile, I had to learn how to build a web page.

The result? I developed expertise in something valuable. And now I make a living from it.

All because I wanted to feel good by making a pointless number slowly increase.

I’m still following this strategy.

Not long ago, I started reading seriously again after a long hiatus. In that post, I talked about what I do every day to maintain this commitment. But I left out one thing: I am obsessed with how many books I’ve read. I count every book I’ve read on my Goodreads profile. Every year I set a goal and try to surpass that total.

That’s not the reason I read: I’m trying to learn stuff I can apply in real life. That’s how I grow and become a better person.

But in the short-term, I feel so damn good when that number goes up. Sometimes it’s just a bad day. Even if I’m reading a great book, I don’t want to go near it. And I might not — or I might dive in anyway, just to get closer to the end, closer to another notch on my belt.

In the startup world this is called a vanity metric. People will tell you these are very bad, because they’ll mislead you into thinking your business is growing when it’s really not.

Of course they’re right. You need better metrics to know whether your business is growing — and whether your mind is growing (I’ll cover some metrics in another post).

What does it matter if I die with the largest library of all my friends? What’s important is to do something as a result of all that reading.

And yet…

There’s a reason vanity metrics make us feel good. We want to be liked. We want to be proud of ourselves. We want to feel like we’re getting somewhere.

This is normal. It helps us and motivates us. It lets us show off. As long we don’t confuse them for our real progress indicators, they’re fun and harmless, and they have beneficial side-effects.

If you read a book just because it’s short, just to get your count up, you’re doing something wrong. But if you hit a cool milestone like 50 books in a year, and they were all books you learned something from, celebrate it! You deserve it.