Approx. 1,500 words – 12 mins

(Photo credit – me. It’s my Kindle. The books is “Principles”, by legendary hedge fund manager, Ray Dalio.)

“Paid as You Learn”

Does your employer pay you overtime to read books?

Yeah, thought not.

See, my view is—and this underpins our unlimited CPD fund concept—why on earth would you want your employees to be even 1% worse at their job than they could be?

Let’s do some billy-basics maths. If each of us made a 1% gain per day in some important dimension of skills required to deliver our services; say, “quality of decisions made”, that’s a cumulative advantage of marginal gains that stacks up to make each of us fully ONE THOUSAND percent better every 232 days. Don’t believe me? Go look up a compound interest table online. It’s scary how powerful the law of compounding returns is. It’s the whole rationale behind my Success = Work Time thesis. In aggregate, these 10X gains every 232 days result in Arbtech moving the needle very significantly and in a tangibly measurable way (profit), year in, year out.

A year, parenthetically, is a beautiful way to frame it. Two reasons: first, if you took just the statutory holiday there are precisely [(5×52)-28] = 232 working days in the year (nature really is magical with parallels like that!). Second, the longer the time period you measure something by, the easier it is to tease out the ‘signal from the noise’ (there’s great book by the same name if you’re into your stats, incidentally).

No days off

Now, here’s a cool fact: how much better at something would you be if you worked to be 1% better per day, for a year, straight?

The answer is 37X. Or, three thousand seven hundred percent.

Let that sink in. Or better still, write it down and stick it somewhere prominent. On that note, one of the ways that I ensure I do certain activities in my personal life (like flossing, which I loathe but know is correlated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease) is to mark days off on a calendar with a big X. After a while, the habit sticks, but while you’re building the habit, the only thing you need to focus on is “no days off”.

Back to books

Until late last year, I went almost 10 years without owning a television. And no, I didn’t just watch TV on some pirate-device or iPad. I fully and completely removed myself from the overwhelmingly destructive*, vegetative, semi-conscious oblivion that most people spend something like 20-40 hours a week in (can’t find the paper to cite right now, but that’s the average British person with a 9-5-type job). Now that I speak Spanish, I have bought a TV again (which is in the study, not a bedroom or living room) so I can watch Netflix, which allows you to select the language for both audio and subtitles and thus keep in contact with said language. Anyway, during the last decade, I have read something like an average of two books per week. I am busy as hell acquiring new skills right now (drawing, painting, playing the piano), so that’s dropped to about 1 book a week for now. Even so, I don’t read fiction, so the majority of these books are fairly dense, scholastic reads in the fields of economics, psychology and biology.

*Negative news aside, there’s a huge literature showing strong correlations with things like weight gain and lower back pain in regular TV watchers.

The amount of impact this reading has had on my life is difficult to articulate, even for me. Take my job for example. As MD, I need to be able to think clearly, speak articulately, and write concisely. There is no better way to improve all of these skills than to read. Period.


Although I do it for intellectual interest and pleasure, I treat reading with the same ferocious discipline I do any quest for the development of mastery: strength, fighting, snowboarding, climbing, mountain biking … language, arts, ‘business’, etc. This means I dedicate time for reading (and the subsequent highlighting, underlining, reflecting and note-making). It’s one of my daily “non-negotiables”.

*On that note, if mastery interests you, I highly recommend Robert Greene’s book by the same name. Phenomenal. Just don’t cop out and buy the abridged version. Get the full fat edition. It’s worth it every extra second of reading and reflecting time.

In the course of reading something like 1,000 books, I’ve learned a great deal from bold, original thinkers. People like Robert Sapolsky, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Taleb, Hans Eysenck, Jordan Peterson, Robert Cialdini, Steven Pinker, Gary Kasperov, Michael Porter, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Friedrich Nitchzsche, Carl Jung, and quite literally hundreds of others. Naturally, I’ve probably made an appalling mess of the way I’ve interpreted some of their teachings, but inevitably, through either luck or sheer persistence, I think I’ve made good on a few of them too.

How does any of this get me paid?

So, here’s the thing. I could spend most of my day reading and thinking about this stuff, and occasionally recording a video or writing about it for distribution among the troops. (I do this.) But, in doing so I take away time from Arbtech’s consultants and administrative staff, which after all are our primary source of profit. How then to get the tacit knowledge from the heads of these great thinkers, into the heads of my colleagues?

One way is to mandate that they read certain texts. That’s not really my style.

Another, better way, is to provide an incentive to those who want to progress their professional skills (the hardest to develop in someone). As they level themselves up by 1%, so they drag our ‘business outcomes’ up in equal measure with them. The way we do this at Arbtech is called “Paid as You Learn”.

How does it work?

I have compiled a list of books, which in the future may be extended to journal articles and even videos. People will choose what they want to read (or listen to, using their free Audible account that Arbtech pays for). Once read, they arrange a Skype call with me to briefly summarise and discuss the key learning points (which I look forward to, so that I can be benefitted with their perspectives and potentially things I’ve missed). If I am satisfied that the book has been read, the employee sends an overtime claim to Scott (finance manager) which is paid out in that month’s salary.

Clearly, some books are more valuable than others in terms of their ability to challenge you and improve the quality and acuity of your thinking. Others require more cognitive effort (or sheer time, because of word count). For this reason, different books will attract different rates of pay.

Eventually, I posit, once everyone in the business has read the ten or twenty most valuable books I can think of—the business will be not just 1% better each day, but unrecognisable. Can you imagine, then, how a business would perform if its 25 people had amped up their professional skills to a level uncommon in scientific disciplines, say by reading hundreds of books of a decade or more, and all that while they worked flat-out, as hard as they can toward a unified goal?

Me too. Scarily cool.

As usual, let me know what you think. Good or bad, I don’t mind. The important thing is for me to test my opinions and assumptions publicly: two heads really are better than one, so comment below and start the conversation.


PS. If you’re wondering where all this is suddenly coming from, it’s because last year I lived in Spain for 7.5 months and spent another month in South America. During that time, our culture did a bloody good job of keeping the flywheel turning. But now I’m back. And it’s time to turn the gas all the way up to 11.

Keep grinding. Good things to come.