I have always considered myself incredibly lucky that I am a reader. I’ve been encouraged to read from an early age, and have seen the benefits of this ‘hobby’ on a daily basis in both personal and business contexts. While some describe reading fiction in particular, as a hobby, I, and others, consider it an important practice with notable outcomes that can create competitive advantage in the workplace.
We are increasingly recognising the importance of Emotional Intelligence as a tool for achieving success in the workplace yet face a diminishing of communication skills. There is increased competition for our already transient attention spans, yet we are faced the challenge of recognising greater complexity in cultural appropriateness in the workplace. We see that transformational leadership is the most functional approach but how many leaders are skilled storytellers, display empathy or possess social ability, all necessary features of the buy-in process. Reading fiction provides the means to achieving these skills and more.
A large part of my academic and professional career has been spent analysing and deconstructing texts on creativity and critical thinking or ploughing through business-oriented texts in search of the next great idea on how to have great ideas. The academic process was performed primarily, to determine patterns of behaviour related to creativity towards understanding the ways in which we culturally engage with the creative and innovative individual. In a business context, it is very much about creating value for my clients, how to help them to improve their performance in competitive spaces.
The benefits of reading books designed to be informative within a specific industry or related to a particular subject are clear. There are countless books addressing a range of topics in my own industry, innovation, which are immediately heaving with useful information. This creates a potential pitfall, the clarity of the outcome can dictate that we prioritise reading for reaction to needs as opposed to reading for preparation of self.
Why You Should Read More Fiction
I had already started tinkering away at this blog post before I asked the question during a workshop on Innovation & Creativity, who reads fiction? One person in the room said they ‘don’t read fiction any more, as it now seems frivolous after a life changing experience’, another said they’ve ‘never seen the point in reading fiction.’ My role requires I remain objective and manage my responses to occasionally jarring statements, but I couldn’t help but drop my guard and engage, not as a trainer, but as a reader first and facilitator second.
To consider reading fiction frivolous is to disregard a range of skills developed in the process of reading a novel. First, but not necessarily the most important, reading teaches us patience. In our current state of transient engagement, cluttered distraction, and intrusive and constantly updating screens, sticking with a narrative that extends beyond the 100 page mark is a challenge for some. Learning the powers of patience through the unfurling of a story has a positive impact on how we engage in business settings. Where immediate gratification is lacking, and projects are dragging on, having the capacity for persistence is valuable.
It turns out that following a story line and remembering characters over several reading sessions, as you must do with a book, is especially beneficial for brain function.
Patience, however, isn’t just for projects, it is also for people. Not every team member arrives with the same gusto and immediate clarity of intent or attitude. It takes time to know people, for a person to reveal themselves. Instagram and other social media outlets are more inclined towards immediacy, but those of us familiar with team-building know that there are stages in this process, and each stage takes time and is dependent on the people in the group. ‘Storming’ through to ‘Adjorning’ as per the Tuckman model, takes patience, emotional intelligence, awareness of others and an awareness of the self. Reading facilitates our capacity to give time and patience to the reveal and offsets the unrealistic expectation of immediacy.
Reading teaches us to recognise the patterns and relationship between thought and action, to recognise motivations and how people other than ourselves engage with obstacles. Reading teaches us to problem solve, future-scope and analyse contexts and features of broad constructed landscapes.
People who read a lot of fiction are likely to develop habits to pay attention to the kinds of information that fiction leads them to consider.
Reading is a Physical Activity
If like me, you happen to be an active reader, your books are scored with underlined sentences, filled with annotations, and circled words you don’t immediately recognise are recorded, researched and added to your ever-expanding vocabulary. This makes you a better writer, speaker and conversationalist.
Communication is a tremendously valuable skill in the workplace and increasing in currency every day. Whether in delivering basic information, creating buy-in through inspirational storytelling or simply holding an engaged presentation or conversation with teams, reading teaches us to communicate in a range of tones drawn from a diverse vocabulary, while encouraging us to be interested in others as an extension of the empathy we gain by reading.
My reading process inspires me towards research. I’m motivated to know more about the people, their context and the topics they discuss. I don’t accept information passively, I try to capture it and learn from the secondary aspect of reading a novel, the extended learning opportunity through research. Again, this is becoming a greater commodity, and certainly the loss of which is already lamented in both academic and business circles alike. Critical engagement with your reading will allow you to unpack a story, understand its structure, identify the various stakeholders, and categorise them in terms of importance to the overall plot. Just a few of the basic features of reading that have important correlations in a business context.
Reading exposes us to a range of ideas, perspectives, challenges and achievements that you may never have an opportunity to encounter outside the confines of the book covers. The most recent book I finished was set in 1913, the American West, from the perspective of a female author writing about a female immigrant who outshines her brothers in business, sacrifices any opportunity for a romantic engagement and very much upsets the cultural applecart by living her life in accordance with her ow value.
It can be argued that this story could be reproduced on film but spending two hours with characters as opposed to spending days with characters has a very different impact on how we view the people and their cultural context, and of course, how we feel about the people. There are nuances exposed through reading that film doesn’t achieve, and this impacts the development of neural networks over time. That’s not to say for one second that film is inferior, just different. Reading impacts the brain in quite a dramatic manner, as outlined in the linked article.
One of the most important ingredients for achieving an innovation mindset is exposure to, and engagement with eclectic sources of information and inspiration. This willingness to put yourself into ambiguous spaces and to explore material outside your comfort zone is the most immediate means to offsetting that generic response to a challenge you face. On countless occasions during innovation workshops I have drawn on the thinking I have encountered through seemingly unconnected novels.
"paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions."
My Challenge to Me.
This year I challenged myself to read as many of the Pocket Penguin Classic Collection as I could. The collection contains 40 books. Reading 40 books in a year, for a reader of even passable intent would be no great feat. However, this challenge to myself will be performed in tandem with all the work-related and academic reading I do, and while running a business.
Fortunately, in this challenge I’m not playing to win, I’m playing to play! The process is what interests me. If I get through ten more books from today, I will be happy.
While certain of the authors on the list are familiar to me, I have also been exposed to authors that I had not previous met through my previous literary travels. Willa Cather’s book, O’ Pioneers, written in 1913 and gloriously described as ‘A rapturous work of savage beauty’ on the cover, has been a revelation, I’m looking forward to encountering many more.
Read for whatever reason gets you to open a book. Find an author you like, a story you love or a space in time for a little escapism.