How and What I Read

Paul Stansik
4 min readOct 16, 2023

I have a two-part rule for my writing: I don’t plagiarize, but I do steal.

The ideas, the concepts, the structures, and even the sounds in my essays are very rarely all my own. I’m constantly borrowing from what other, better writers do and twisting their techniques to fit my purposes. Sometimes I’ll even copy a few of their pages (by hand) to get myself going and to get their voice into my ear.

There’s a word for this: It’s called “copywork.” Here’s a great clip from David Perrell’s podcast talking about what it is and why it’s valuable. Copywork has become a secret weapon of mine as I try to absorb and imitate the stuff I admire about my favorite authors: Stephen King’s tone of voice, Stephen Pressfield’s punch and willingness to detour into the mystical, and Patrick Lencioni’s structure and simplicity.

But there’s one author I try to channel more than any other — not only for the depth of his work and his approachable style, but for how he gathers and assembles the raw ingredients that underpin his writing. That guy is

, author of The Obstacle Is The Way, Trust Me I’m Lying, and my favorite book about what it takes to create stuff that stands the test of time, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts.

Ryan got his literary start as research assistant to Robert Greene, the best-selling author of books like The 48 Laws of Power and Mastery (in my opinion, the best book ever written about how to get good at stuff). Robert’s books all use a similar structure. Each chapter dives deep into a timeless principle — a principle that, if understood and used appropriately, promises to help the reader achieve more power, more influence, or to just get up the learning curve of life a little faster. But it’s how he introduces these principles that makes his writing so unique. Each chapter is full of detailed, well-researched stories — usually from the lives of well-known historical figures. Robert has a seemingly-bottomless reserve of significant stories about significant people. By interlacing his writing with real-world examples from people we know (and, more often than not, people most of us would like to emulate) Robert gives the lessons in his books additional weight and legitimacy. His suggestions don’t just seem logical. Backed up with well-chosen evidence and examples, they seem timeless, even immutable. Because of this deep level of research and how he supports his thinking, Roberts’s work strikes a rare balance: It’s equal parts enjoyable to read and difficult to argue with.

This dual-threat school of research and writing is where Ryan Holiday honed his craft. And you can see and hear Robert’s influence (and the same sense of balance) in all of his recent work. Every chapter of Ryan’s is similarly bolstered by real-world examples, quotes, stories, and frameworks — all of which he gathers from a voracious reading habit, highlighted in a fantastic reading-list email he sends out every month or so. (If you like books, you should definitely sign up.)

I’m not yet a best-selling author. Hell, if you define “author” by whether someone’s published their first real book, I haven’t even gotten there yet. Maybe someday. For now, just call me a writer. As of this post, I’m 50 essays deep, all published in the last three years. My writing really got going when I adopted another writing practice.

A practice I stole from Ryan. A practice he stole from Robert.

The practice of capturing and organizing the useful stuff from what I read.

I’ve already written about Ryan’s “notecard system” and how I’ve evolved it to fit my needs. The most important component of the system is volume: The more you read, the better it works. “Everything is material,” Ryan has written. And so it follows that the more material you get through, the more material you’ll earmark for later, and the more you’ll have to draw on when it comes time to sit down and push out some of your own work.

So that’s what I do. I read. And I turn the corners of the best pages, and return to them a few weeks after, and I jot down the quotes, ideas, stories, and concepts that seem worth filing away, and I keep them on notecards. And now, because of that habit, because of that practice, I have a pile of ammunition that has only started to make its way into my work. The work I use to express who I am, how I think, and what I’m uncovering about myself and the companies I get to work with.

Maybe because of all this, I get asked this question a lot:

“What are you reading?”

Well, I finally got around to compiling a list of both my favorite books and the books I’ve stolen from the most. For me, they’re one and the same.

Here’s a free link to my reading list if you want to check it out.

Thanks for reading.

You might have noticed that I’m starting to move my writing from Medium to Substack. If you’ve enjoyed reading my stuff here on Medium, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Hello Operator (my new writing project) over on Substack. It’s free and always will be.

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Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.